Immigrant Bengalis

America – the land of the free and the home of the brave. In whichever part of the world one may be, there is hardly a soul who has not heard of this great land. Either a friend or a relative has been there or aspires to go there or has heard an acquaintance extolling the merits of the great American dream.

As far as I was concerned, I had a very happy existence in Mumbai. A city that meant everything to me and which I did not even dream of leaving. I had a happy childhood, attended one of the best schools in the city, studied in a very good college and had great friends. To this add the hustle and bustle of the place, the multicultural cuisine and the rich cultural diversity which made up the colorful fabric of the city. I was in a very happy place in life and America was not even a far-away dream.  

But curiously enough this great land and I periodically kept crossing paths. As a child, my only memory of America was that it was a country that had kept me away from my father for almost two years. Being a research scientist, my father had to come to this country in 1960 under an exchange program to conduct research at Princeton University. I remember my mother telling me one day that Pappa would be going to America. I was only three years old at that time and had no idea about what America was. I asked Pappa when he would return, and he replied that he would be away for two years. Sensing that I was on the brink of tears, he told me not to worry since Aai and I would be joining him soon. I still remember all our relatives coming to the old Santacruz airport to see him off. Those were the days when you could just go on to the viewing gallery of the airport and see passengers climb onto the plane. I returned home with Aai, very upset that Pappa had left, but hopeful that soon we would be able join him. However, that was not to be. I remember going to the travel agent several times with Aai. While Aai would be talking to the agent I would sit staring fascinated at the BOAC model planes the agency had in their office. I remember we had to make several trips since the agent was helping us get a US visa as well. On our last visit to the agent’s office, I could sense a feeling of disappointment on Aai’s face. Apparently the then Minister of Finance, Morarji Desai, had introduced something known as the P Form. Aai being alone, was possibly overwhelmed by the daunting task of having to gather all the documents necessary to get that P form and hence had decided to give up the attempt altogether. I remember coming out of the office and Aai telling me that we would be unable to go to America. I was heartbroken because this meant that I would not be able to see my father for a very long time. The two years went by and during that time I remember receiving a lot of picture post cards from Pappa, with showed thick foliage in gorgeous fall colors against the backdrop of the stately and dignified Princeton University

After Pappa moved back from America, he would always speak fondly of this great land. He was offered a position in a major research company and we moved into the company’s exquisite housing colony at Goregaon, Mumbai. The design of this colony had been inspired by the design of the company’s headquarters in Switzerland. Here I would hear more of America, since the scientists there had all either been to or had studied in America. In the colony we children referred to all elders as Uncles and one such Uncle had, after studying in the US, taken his Chevrolet back to India. Always parked below our house, Uncle would talk of the great American cars and the great American roads. I remember the story he often told us as to how he would hold a cup of coffee in his hand and not a drop would spill in spite of driving mile after mile at great speed. Such was the quality of both cars and the roads in America.

It was many years later, after I qualified as a Chartered Accountant in India, that America was to touch our lives again. My father had never quite forgotten this country. He decided to apply for a Green Card. I was already over 21, hence I did not qualify, but he did apply for my younger brother and mother. Since he held a Ph.D., was the author of numerous papers and held several patents in his name, he easily got the Green Card. He never moved to the US though and only made periodic trips to the US when the fancy took him. In 1993 my brother-in-law moved to the US for further medical studies and America once again loomed in the horizon.

Life sailed along for me in Mumbai for the next seventeen years. I was in a routine that I enjoyed, had a college-going son, my wife was getting to be a well-known name in the field of Architecture and life seemed settled. It was at this point that life decided to pick me up by my feet and give me a twirl. I received a very lucrative offer from a company in the Middle East. I decided to take it up, thinking to myself that it was too good an offer to refuse, and anyway the place was very close to Mumbai. Two years went by in a jiffy and just when I thought that life was settling into a pattern, along came another upheaval

 A major IT company had landed a complicated project in Germany and was looking for a person with my kind of professional background to fit the role. They approached me with an offer which I accepted, and I had to leave for Munich for an estimated period of about two years. Whilst I was in Munich, the German company was bought out by an American company and the same project got extended to America. Since I was leading it in Germany, I became the natural candidate to lead the US project as well. My wife’s and my US visas were to be processed and this took place in Munich itself.  A few months later the Company asked me to go to the US for meetings in preparation for the project and there I was, finally set to travel to the greatest nation in the world, which knowingly or unknowingly had been touching my life in one way or the other at different points of time.

In preparation for the overseas travel my company had transferred an appropriate allowance to my bank account. As we had done when we travelled to other countries before, my plan was to withdraw cash for purchasing US dollars at the airport. My Company had already reserved a car for me and had done the hotel reservations for a 45-day stay in the US. Having been away from India for almost 3 years now I had forgotten about the concept of a credit card since I had not needed one. I was using a debit card. I had a Citibank card from India as well but that I had not needed to use. Interestingly a day before I was to travel to the US, one of my colleagues came to meet me. Knowing that this was my first trip to the US, one of the points he happened to mention was that he hoped I had a credit card on me. All that I had was a debit card issued by a bank in Germany. When my colleague heard this, he told me that in the US it is absolutely impossible to manage without a credit card. I took him lightly since I already had a good amount of Euros given by my Company, which I would convert to dollars at the airport. Why on earth would I need a credit card?

Thus I set out for the US. I remember, just before landing at Newark airport, the pilot tilting the plane onto one side so that we could get a good view of Lady Liberty. I also saw a lot of cars parked around the airport. My fellow passenger who travelled frequently to the US nonchalantly told me that the US was all about cars. The first sight of the operator on the air tarmac showed me that I had truly landed in America. He was a big burly man. I had never seen such a gigantic human before in my life. After landing, immigration clearance was a breeze and so was collecting my luggage. The next step was to take the shuttle of the car rental company, go to their office, pick up my car and drive to the hotel. As simple as that.

It was around 6.00 pm. On reaching the car rental company I was warmly received at the reception and was looking forward to picking up my car and driving to my hotel. The paperwork was being completed and I was asked if I wanted to pay for the entire period of 45 days or for a lesser period. I told them I will pay for the entire period. The lady at the counter asked for my card. I proudly told her I am willing to pay cash instead. She said, “Sorry Sir, we will need a card on hold.” I told her that I was doing better than that and was paying full cash, but she would have none of it. A card was a must.  Anxiously I handed her my debit card from the bank in Germany. She swiped and handed it back to me, saying, “Sorry sir, but do you have another card?” I told her that although this was a debit card, it should be fine since I had sufficient balance in my bank in Germany to cover the car rental for the entire period. She said that might be true, but the system was not accepting the card. I then took out my phone and called the bank’s customer care in Germany. While the associate was talking to me, I ran out of phone time. Roaming can eat up your phone time quickly as you know. I looked nervously at the lady at the counter and asked her if I could use their phone. She said I could as long as it was a local call. I needed to call Germany. She suggested that I take the shuttle back to the airport and try making a call from one of the kiosks there. I lugged all my stuff back to the shuttle and came back to the airport. It was an October evening and reasonably cold. My anxiety level had started going up. I finally reached the airport and called up Germany from a public phone. Got through to another associate, who told me that my debit card would not work, since it had limited use only for local banking transactions. I was astounded. The associate said that if I needed a credit card then I would have to speak to the officer during normal banking hours. This was a blow since it meant that I would not have a solution that night. I thought to myself, “Let me go back to Enterprise and try and convince that lady to accept cash.” I once again dragged my luggage outside and waited for the shuttle. It was nearing 8 pm now. I reached the car rental company and told them that I had tried to speak to my bank, but they had asked me to call back the next day. Meanwhile could they please accept cash for a week’s rental? They would have none of it. A card would have to be kept on hold without which they could not give me a car. I tried convincing but nothing worked.  After a long flight from Munich and in a new country and a new time zone, I was already beginning to feel tired and sleepy.

 I suddenly remembered I had my Citibank Card from India, which I had not used for well over 3 years. I decided to take a chance and speak with customer care from Citibank India. I once again requested the lady at the counter, if I could make a call. The same answer: if it was a local call then fine, but an international call would not be possible. This only meant one thing. I would have to go back to the airport once again. I took the opportunity to make a local call to the Hotel and told them that I would still be coming, and they should not cancel my reservation. This time I requested the lady if I could keep my luggage with them. They said that I could do so by all means, but they would not take responsibility if anything was missing. With no better alternative, I left my luggage with them and once again took the shuttle to the airport. I dozed off in the shuttle for a short while. Since I had spent a packet calling Germany, this time, instead of going to a public telephone, I went to an Indian vendor at the airport and asked him if he had a calling card. He fortunately did and I went to the public phone, prayed to the Almighty and called Citibank India customer care. The first time no one picked up. The second time I was fortunate that someone did. He told me that there were fewer associates due to the Diwali holidays. I told him of my predicament. He checked my card and said it was deactivated due to non-use. But then said that he would check if he could re-activate it. Praise the Lord, he was able to activate it and was able to increase the credit limit from the original INR 25000 to INR 75000. Considering the rate then was Rs 44 to the dollar, it meant I would have a credit of $ 1700 on the card. So, on my first trip to the US, it was someone from my home country, India, who came to the rescue. I blessed the agent many times over and started off on my journey back to the rental company. My sleep by now had vanished, but I had to wait a long time for the shuttle. By the time I was back, it was 11.15 pm. I was relieved to see my luggage intact. I handed over my card to the associate and told her to take a week’s rental. I held my breath in anticipation and called upon all the Gods in the Pantheon as she tried to swipe the card, and guess what, the card worked! In my mind, I again blessed the Citibank Associate in India because of whom I was finally able to get a car.

I asked the lady the way to Princeton and she told me to follow the route to the turnpike. I started out, feeling sleepy once again and somehow managed to get onto the turnpike. As I drove, I was looking for the famous glitter of USA that I had heard so much of and seen on TV, but all I could see was darkness everywhere. Maybe the fairyland is a little ahead, I said to myself.

I don’t know why, maybe because I was not used to such long distances, but after some time I thought I had driven a long way on the turnpike and had left my hotel behind. Hence I decided to exit the turnpike. I still remember stopping bang in the middle of the toll booth, getting off and talking to the attendant to ask her the way. She asked me to move my car from the toll booth first, as there was a car behind me. I paid her the toll, parked the car at the side of the road and went back to her to ask her the route to Princeton. She wondered why I had left the turnpike. Fortunately, this could only mean that I had not left the Hotel behind. She gave me some directions and I got onto a road which led me past a group of boys playing basketball at night. At nearly 12.00 am with all the cash in my pocket, I got off my car and asked one of them the way to Princeton. They gave me precise directions and finally I think I was on track on Route 1 and managed to reach my hotel. But something was wrong somewhere. Where were the glittering lights of America? That glittering land that I had never aspired to come to but a land which had continued to touch my life in so many different ways at so many different stages…… I was here finally!

For me, coming to the US was a baptism by fire. But I am sure I have some past connections with this land. Maybe that is why when I was in Mumbai, I used to dream of wide, never-ending roads. And maybe Princeton was the place where I was destined to come. There was a feeling of deja-vu when I finally visited Princeton University, the place where my father had come when I was a child. I was not meant to come then but was destined to come 46 years later. This is destiny and such is life.



(Posted April10, 2021)

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Comment received on April 13, 2021 from Pronoy C:

"Read three writeups, all are very good. I liked very much Ranjana Sanyal's touching encounter with a hospital janitorial staff. She structured the whole story very nicely. She does have a good writing skill. I also liked Abhay Kangle's episode on credit card and how he suffered for his own initial ignorance and at the end how he smartly overcame the hurdle. Nicely put together.

America: The Land that Beckoned

Abhay Kangle