Immigrant Bengalis

Khatta Meetha

Satya Jeet

One does not study at an IIT in India to get a job as a desk clerk in a motel in America. For myself, it was not a planned career move. The change happened quite by accident. I discovered, what they did not teach me at IIT, I learned as a desk clerk in an American motel.

We were living in Manhattan when September 11th shed a dark cloud over our lives. As a news photographer, I could have easily perished but was saved by the skin of my teeth. Next came the ‘Anthrax scare’, another close call. We had a baby at home. Tara and I decided to travel as far away as possible from the madness. Throwing caution to the wind, we took off for California.

In the time we had been together, my American wife had developed a taste for Rasogolla, Sweet Mango Achaar and Haldiram’s Khatta Meetha. In our new environment, we had yet to discover the exotic offerings of Pioneer Boulevard. I soon found a hole in the wall near our home in Orange County that fit the bill.

It was a very modest operation, and I could tell this was the place local Indian men gathered to chew Pan Parag. I stood out like a sore thumb. I asked the shopkeeper’s help to fill my modest needs. Bit by bit, another man approached me and asked respectfully, ‘How are you speaking Engleesh, so, so good?’

I have had this conversation before. A quick lesson in the history of British India, their capital city of Calcutta and public schooling does the trick. Almost everybody in the store nodded their head in agreement.

My wife’s appetite for Khatta Meetha is unending, and soon I met the same man again. This time around, the man asked me many more questions, tapping me as ‘Google on foot’. With each answer I gave, I could see it in his eyes, his respect for my knowledge climbing to higher levels. Finally, he asked me, ‘Sir, what kind of business do you own?’

I told him, ‘I do not own a business.’

I can still recall the pained expression on the man’s face. He was crestfallen. He could not believe that a man of my exalted caliber, who knew the answer to all the mysteries of the world, does not own a business. He introduced himself as Dan and he told me he had a motel nearby.

My next trip to the store was for Mango Achaar, Dan was there. I could not refuse his invitation to visit his motel with him, which he claimed was nearby.

I followed him in my car. His motel was not nearby.

Dan gave me a guided tour through the property. I was very impressed by what I saw, and I told him so. He smiled in satisfaction. I could tell from the glint in his eyes, we were to be friends for life. He leaned over and whispered, ‘I need your help. You must help me.’

My guards went up. I knew, though Dan praised my learned views, in the back of his mind he saw me as a fool without a business of his own. I leaned forward.

Keeping his voice low, Dan declared with a sense of secrecy, ‘My nephew is no good. His mind is all over, all over the place. He need to settle down.’


‘I go to my village and get him married to a good girl. He will settle down.’ He looked pleased with his display of wisdom. I wondered what I had to do with his nephew’s marriage.

‘Will you look after my motel while I am going?’

My blank expression did not deter him at all. ‘This is the auspicious month. I will just go to village and come back. Very quick. Maybe, two, three weeks.’

Like I mentioned, this was not a career move I had planned on.

Standing in his motel lobby, I realized, Dan was an uneducated ‘Gujju’, but he could size up a man at one glance. He was wily. He knew I was an educated ‘Bong’ and it was in my DNA to serve ….. and I certainly did not have what it takes, to steal from him. 

The following morning, I watched Dan working at the front desk. He checked out guests from the motel, made a housekeeping list for the staff and took phone calls for reservations that he entered into a computer. Around noon, his wife, Hethel served us a hot, vegetarian lunch. Then he was gone!

The first customers, a middle-aged couple came in a few minutes before three. They were impressed by my polite welcome. I checked them in on the computer, made them a room key ….. and then I froze.

I am a ‘Bong’. I suppose my forefathers before me had never put out their palms and asked anyone for money. I stared at the couple before me. I could have reeled off the Mendeleev Periodic Table, explained Newton’s laws of motion, recited the American Constitution but nothing came out of my mouth.

The couple stared at me. We drew a blank. Finally, after what seemed ages, I stuttered, ‘Will it be cash or credit?’ 

‘Credit. Do you take American Express?’

‘Yes, we do,’ I said, reaching out and taking the card from his hand. In that split second, I passed a major cultural milestone of my life. I had learned to ask for money and not feel ‘shame’ for doing do.

*** *** ***

It was an elementary business to run. I made out a work schedule that allowed flexibility to our housekeeping staff, mostly Spanish-speaking women. They felt, for the first time in their lives, their needs were being considered at their place of employment. They put their hearts and minds into their job. I rearranged the laundry room and that allowed for a smoother work flow. The staff polished up the motel and we looked good.

This was middle America, working class America. Parents brought their children to visit the amusements at Knotts Berry Farm and stayed the night with us. I learnt a few junior high jokes from my older boy and used them to my advantage.

When the parents said, ‘See you later,’ I replied, ‘Alligator.’

The parents threw back, ‘In a while.’ Unfazed, I responded, ‘Crocodile.’

The kids rolled with laughter. I was as much a hit as the clown at Knotts Berry Farm.

Dan returned nearly two months later. There was an easy explanation for his delay. It took more than a month to find the right match for his nephew. It was the wedding that followed in two to three weeks.

Dan had returned to find that his modest motel was a regular force to contend with. Sales at the motel were at an all-time high and reservations were rock steady. But all was not as well as I had imagined. With great jest in his delivery, Dan told me: Hethel had reported to him that  during his absence, I called every woman who came to the desk, ‘honey’.

‘Does the man have no shame?’ Hethel had wanted to know.

Emboldened by her husband’s return from India, Hethel covered the front desk with old newspapers and taped them down with Scotch tape. I was at a loss to explain her actions to myself. Dan told me, ‘Hethel is a very religious woman. She does not want the ‘beef eaters’ in America to come in direct contact with the desk. We have a ‘puja’ altar on the side.’

Like I said, I learn something new every day.  

By this time, I had registered for courses in Music Theory and Piano Performance at the University of California. Dan told me, ‘You can study on the job and make a little money on the side. Stay with us.’

I did. And I became a part of the motel community.

Early one morning I saw a man sitting on the diving board of the swimming pool. He was swaying from side to side, about to fall in.

I ran up to the pool and called out to him. He did not care. Not wanting to see a man drown in our pool in front of my very eyes, I rushed back to the front desk. Dan was there already.

‘Dan, quick, call 911. There is a drunk man about to stumble into our pool.’

Dan rushed up to the window. He studied the man closely and smiled. ‘That’s Miguel, our handyman. They must have let him off this morning. He is celebrating.’

Dan went on to explain, ‘Miguel is the best handyman I’ve had. His problem is that he gets into fights when he drinks alcohol and the police have to take him away. I was waiting for Miguel to get out. Now we can fix the gutters on the roof.’

I had never met a man before who had served time in prison except when I shot a documentary on Riker’s Island for CBS Television. It dawned on me that I must have had a very protected life. I had to grow up!

We made a good combination, Dan and me. I was learning the pragmatic ways of the world and Dan was sincerely trying to pick up on spoken English and social graces.

A rather stylish couple walked into the lobby one Saturday evening. The woman, quite pretty, stood somewhat afar from the counter as the man registered in. As I processed them on the computer, I couldn’t get the woman out of my mind. What a pleasant distraction she was but a distraction no less!

Then suddenly, ‘Eureka! I got it!’

‘Ma’am,’ I called out, ‘that Joy perfume by Jean Patou you are wearing is also my favorite. My mother discovered it in Paris in the mid 50s. It is our family tradition in Calcutta to include a bottle of Joy in the trousseau of our girls during their wedding.’

The smart looking woman just melted away; we were friends for life. She ignored her date, as Dan and we continued our animated discussion on perfumes and fashion. Her date had to drag her away from the lobby. I suppose, he had other things on his mind!

Dan had a twinkle in his eye and shook his head. He was learning from me.

They were not all smart couples. People were stranded at the motel, extending their stay with their last dollar. Sometimes they fell back on the rent and I had to carry them for a day or two. Dan did not relish my kindness or business ‘risks’ but we never lost any revenues either.

Jill would occasionally fall behind in her rent, with the promise that her boy-friend would show up and take care of the arrears. Although I never I saw him, the bills were taken care of in my absence. Several cycles of tardy payments later, as I was going through the accounts, I noticed Jill was three days behind. Summoned to the desk by a house-keeper, Jill repeated her earlier line, ‘My boy-friend will be here shortly and take care of this bill.’

Without batting an eye, I responded, ‘When does he get out of jail?’

‘This Friday,’ she replied cheerfully.

If I was not getting smarter in the ways of the world, at least my intuition was on the mark.

The following Saturday another smart looking couple, dressed to the hilt, stepped into the lobby. As I processed their transaction on the computer, I could see Dan eager to start a conversation. He pointed to the beautiful handbag the woman was carrying.

‘Ma’am, is that a real Gucci bag or a fake one?’ he asked politely.

The woman gave Dan a dirty look. The couple stormed out of the lobby.

Dan looked perplexed. ‘These people can’t answer a simple question,’ he said.

It was high time to re-tell Dan about British India, the capital of Calcutta, public school education and social graces but I thought it better to wait for a more appropriate moment.

*** *** ***

They were quite the trio. He was paraplegic, strapped to a motorized wheel-chair; she wore dark glasses and walked with a cane, and their daughter had a Quixotic butch hair-cut. The man tried to say something to me, but it was too garbled for me to follow. I made a gesture to get the woman’s attention, but she just stood there and did not respond.

Finally, the child gave me her ID and smiled. They wanted a room.

Checking her ID, I realized she was not a child at all. She was a woman in her late twenties who had been born with the Down Syndrome. One by one, she carefully pulled out dollar bills from her purse and counted them out aloud.

I had no reason to say refuse them a room. They had government IDs, proving that they were all above the age of 21. They paid in cash. I registered them into the handicap room. The youngest of the three said, ‘This is a celebration. I am so happy.’

I went about my work and study. About an hour or so later, the little one came back to the desk and asked, ‘Can you help?’

I rushed back with her to their room.

The man had fallen from his wheel chair and was lying face down on the carpet. He could barely breathe. The woman was trying to help him, but his metal body brace made him inflexible and too heavy a load.

I lifted him up carefully and laid him on the bed. Feeling her way around the room, his girl-friend came over and held his hand. The youngest of the three danced around the room, clapping and singing, ‘Sista is in love, Sista is in love.’

An hour or so later, the little one came to the desk. ‘I am hungry. We have to go home.’

I went back to their room with her. The paraplegic man and the blind woman were lying side by side, holding hands. I lifted him up and strapped him back into his wheel chair. He blinked his eyes to say, ‘Thank you.’

From the office window I watched them go down the sidewalk to the bus stop. I felt a kind of joy I had never experienced before. In America, it is possible for a paraplegic man and a blind woman to have the privacy of a motel room, so they may lie beside each other and hold hands. I learnt, there is a way for a man to say, ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate. Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, ...’ when you are bound to a mechanical chair and cannot move a muscle but your eyes. I learnt that in the secret recess of a woman’s heart, sitting in front of a mirror in a dark room, she knows when she looks pretty as a bride.

The bus arrived and extended the hydraulic lift for the wheel chair. They boarded together and they were gone.

And that song, ‘Sista is in love.’ I could not get the tune out of my head. I whistled it through the afternoon.

(Posted December 1, 2018)

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