Immigrant Bengalis

In Deep South During Civil Rights Movement

Pronoy Chatterjee

When the Pan Am plane landed in New Orleans, Louisiana, on August 23, 1963, Swapna, my newly wedded wife, and I stepped down, tired and fatigued, having spent three days on a flight with several stopovers. We had traveled from Kolkata to New Orleans via Tokyo, Honolulu and San Francisco.

The stopover in Tokyo was mandatory. We stayed in Marunouchi Hotel where for the first time we had the pleasure of seeing a real black and white television set, not on the movie screen, but on a shelf at the corner of our hotel room. On the streets, passersby greeted us with big smiles and curious stares. That was probably because Swapna was wearing sari, and they immediately recognized that we were from India. They stopped and greeted us with a few English words they had in their vocabulary, and the rest of their greetings came in the form of gestures. They asked us about our country and our culture and then they went their way, leaving us with a pleasant human touch.  While we were riding in a cab, the driver asked through our guide/interpreter, with great admiration, if I had seen Netaji (Subhas) Bose. I was surprised. That was in 1963.

Since then I have gone to Tokyo on several occasions and have seen dramatic changes in the Japanese way of life. Tokyo has become highly westernized; everyone rushing to go somewhere, ignoring everything on their way and focusing only on their destination. Time may have robbed the Japanese of a pleasant and peaceful way of life and replaced that with the hustle and bustle that come with westernization and affluence.

It was a hot summer day in New Orleans when we arrived. Anil Mukherjee and his wife Nina, whom we had met a month ago at the US Consulate in Kolkata while waiting for our visa, came to the airport to receive us. They gave us the comfort that we badly needed at the time. We had gone through the stress of traveling thousands of miles at a stretch, encountering shock of the unknown at every step – and we found our own people at last! When we went to their apartment, I took a hot shower, changed to a lungi and a fresh genji, had a most enjoyable meal of chicken curry with bhat, dal, tarkari and achar. While traveling, I never thought I would have the privilege of enjoying my favorite meal right on landing in an unknown land.

Anil and Nina showed us how to shop at a supermarket, pushing the cart and picking the packages from the shelf with no surveillance whatsoever. They also taught us how to interact with the local people, the whites and the blacks in the USA, and gave us a brief rundown of the cultural mosaic of New Orleans, Louisiana, and the neighboring southern states. Before arrival in the US, I had no real idea of what America looked like or felt like. Television had not come to India at that time, and all mental images of America had come from infrequent viewing of Hollywood movies at local cinema halls. What little I knew about American history, geography or way of life came from reading Indian newspapers like The Statesman and Amrita Bazar Patrika and books published in England or the US, and from visiting USIS, the big and impressive library maintained by the US Consulate in Kolkata.

In Kolkata, when I first received a ten-page telegram from the United States Government about an outstanding research fellowship offer (that included payment of all expenses for traveling with my immediate family and household effects), I and my fellow researchers at the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science jumped up with joy. Alas, the next day, a friend of mine came to my rented flat at Bagha Jatin Colony and showed me the front page of that day’s The Statesman. The news of the day was that whites were fighting blacks in the US, and riots had broken out on the streets of Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama and other southern states. There was a picture of Bourbon Street of New Orleans ablaze with burning cars and the police aiming their rifles at a rioting mob.

My friend asked, “Should you still consider going to New Orleans? I don’t think you should, no matter how lucrative your offer is. You may go for a blind pursuit of your career, but remember you are dark too, and you have your wife, who may have a fair complexion by our standards, but won’t pass as a white woman there.” 

I couldn’t sleep well for several nights. However, just before the deadline for my acceptance of the award, I went to the Jadavpur Post Office and sent a telegram, saying ‘I accept the offer.” I came out of the post office, sweating profusely, not because I was putting myself at risk but I was putting my wife’s life in danger too. I didn’t tell her about the risks associated with the riots between blacks and whites in New Orleans, so she was thrilled with the prospect of an exciting stay in a foreign country. But I, knowing the real life-threatening risk on one side and the research career opportunities on the other, kept on agonizing for days. Finally, I leaned towards research career as my priority and left the security and comfort of Kolkata for an unknown riot-ridden place in the “Deep South”.

New Orleans was burning at the time with black and white riots, daily bloodshed in the downtown, and widespread hatred and madness everywhere. A few months earlier, Martin Luther King, Jr. had led the famous Selma (Mississippi) nonviolent protest march, modeled after Gandhi’s nonviolence movement, and had delivered his legendary speech, “I have a dream”, in Washington, DC, standing at the foot of Abraham Lincoln’s statue. African Americans had congregated in Washington by the thousands and had repeated after him “I have a dream.” Their thundering voices had reverberated with such intensity that it had finally shaken the establishment of the United States.

At the time, USA had a booming economy. Jobs were plenty, people drove huge cars, changing them every three years as the model changed, but racial prejudice and hatred, especially in the South, made upward economic mobility of the black people virtually impossible. Blacks were deprived of normal, essential education and thus getting a standard job to maintain a minimum standard of living was a huge challenge for most of them. They lived in ghettos, and their children loitered on the streets and succumbed to an all-pervasive mind-altering drug culture.

In most Southern states of the US, people lived in segregated communities, schools were segregated, public bathrooms were segregated (with ‘Coloreds’ and ‘Whites’ marked on the doors), and drinking water faucets too; blacks were not allowed to drink from the faucets marked ‘Whites’. In public transportation, whites would sit in front seats, coloreds (blacks) at the rear.

At the research institute in New Orleans where I had come to work, I had a special orientation session on the first day. At that meeting they explained the cultural set up of the region and how to handle the separation of facilities for coloreds (blacks) and whites. They politely asked me to always use public facilities designated for whites even though I was not white -- and to go forward for the front seats reserved for whites when boarding public transportation. I had this privilege because I was a foreigner, not one of the local “coloreds”.

In the American South, blacks were generally not admitted to white schools. When an all-white college in Alabama defied this policy by admitting a black student, Alabama’s Governor George Wallace himself guarded the college gate to block the student from entering. From Washington DC, President Kennedy sent Federal troops to overthrow this obstruction of a black student entering and registering in an all-white college, thus creating a turning point in the history of the American civil rights movement.

A few months later President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas by a white man. When we heard the news, we rushed back home from our research laboratory to watch hours of television. We watched in dismay a solemn parade with soldiers carrying his coffin past a massive crowd of grief-stricken onlookers. Vice President Lyndon Johnson took the oath of Presidency in the plane on a flight from Dallas to Washington that carried the body of President Kennedy. His widow Jackie, grief-stricken, shocked and stunned by the turn of events, stood calmly by Johnson’s side.

That was the United States in the early 1960s, the time I arrived in the country to pursue my dream of a research career in the world’s most advanced laboratories. And that was the time when history was being made in the US through the civil rights movement and the American politics.

A few years later, Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered while he was standing at the balcony of a hotel in Atlanta, Georgia, by another white man. Riots broke out all through America. The whole South was besieged in a deluge of black and white racial division and hatred and killing that wrecked the society and exacerbated racial and color discrimination.

In those days they didn’t call Negroes as blacks; instead, they were called coloreds. I too had the colored (brown) skin, but did I face any discriminatory hostilities on the streets or in any public places? No, I didn’t, not as long as they recognized me as a foreigner. They put me in a non-colored category, a foreigner, which was my passport to get into the white society freely.

I believe, to a large extent, they (whites) didn’t have any problem in recognizing me as an outsider by seeing my wife’s garment, sari. Until that time, I didn’t have the foggiest notion that one day my wife’s sari would lead me a way to safety. When my wife and I stood on a sidewalk for a bus, someone (white) would stop and offer us a ride. In fact some of these chance encounters with strangers ended up in lasting friendly relationships.

However, my days in New Orleans were not emotionally all rosy in spite of my continuing professional success with ample material rewards and good, trouble-free living. Soon after I settled down in New Orleans, I began to feel a dark shadow of loneliness.  I started missing with some intensity the many things I grew up with and took for granted as part of my everyday life: Bengali songs, Bengali movies, Durga Puja, Bengali gossip and adda, and get-togethers with Bengali friends in tea shops. I started realizing that I missed my cultural roots too much – and that I needed to move to a location in the US that would offer me opportunity to socialize with other Bengalis.

We moved to Princeton, New Jersey in 1965, but I continued to have the same loneliness for not having that ethnic cultural stimulation that was vital to sustain my life. There was no Bengali cultural association there yet -- no Bengali event, nor any of our traditional ritualistic functions, like Saraswati Puja or Kali Puja. I grew up in a Bengali environment, even though I lived a good part of my life in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh before moving to Kolkata, but never before had I realized how important it was to me to have that Bengali environment surrounding me. In absence of that environment, I could not feel at ease in the land that I was going to adopt as my home soon. I realized that a good part of me was missing because of the lack of that socio-environmental factor which I needed and without it, I was incomplete and unhappy.

As the number of Bengalis in central New Jersey -- all scientists and engineers in those days -- began to grow slowly but steadily, a group of us came together to form the nucleus of a Bengali organization and planned a Saraswati Puja. My spirit began to rise as our social life became richer. But that is another story to be told another time.   

(Posted on February 20, 2013)

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