22 December 2006:
My 2-year-old son and Sraboni had just arrived in NY. We were meeting after nearly all the time since our first child, Aloha, was born. I had left Calcutta on an early February evening, just about a month after he was born, and exactly 15 days since my dear mother breathed her last.
To meet them after so long, after a protracted battle with the authorities, since a fellow at the Calcutta consulate had misplaced her papers, felt like a win, but took a lot of time to accept as real. So when they arrived I still didn’t have a camera on my person to capture the momentous instant. I saw them walk out of the immigration gates, as if I was experiencing an epiphany. My little boy was clinging to his mother with the desperation that one sees in the visage of a fledgling when he's asked to take off the perch of the nesting tree where he apparently spent all his life until then, peaceably. Why was he being brought over to a new world, where the rhythm didn’t feel right, no one was waving, hugging or cooing to him-much that he'd gotten used to as human behavior. No, he didn’t know me. Indeed he didn’t trust strangers who moved so close to his mom. So okay, I've been told about this man I'm going to meet - he's my Dad, so what? What makes him feel he can hug my mom, take her by the hand, even worse, grab our luggage - all the bags that Ma kept so close to her all this while. And now he comes up to me, and smiles! He is calling me by my name and holding out his hands too. Boy, is he crazy? I never hug strangers; I'll keep clinging to my Ma. She's mine and I'm hers- and we make a nice family Sir!
But something happened, he just let go of his mother's shoulder as he deftly climbed up my back. I sat him upon the nape of my neck. He suddenly felt elevated, as though an explorer was born in him, surveying the New world around him, as Newark Airport suddenly unwrapped itself in full glory with all its din and bustle, bells and whistles, faces and voices to a child who longed to float into a world all over again. Indeed, he told himself, this is the fourth time in a row I am encountering a new planet. First, the time I discovered myself swimming in a sea of warm currents that seemed to last forever, until a door opened and I was flung head first into another sea of air, where breathing was the trick I learnt would keep me alive. Soon it was quite another world where i was bathed in light, and nearly everything around me lived because of light; things appeared to me, and very soon they had names - some even had voices, and they yelled back as I did at them - moved as I moved them.
Everything changed again within a span of seventeen hours. My house was gone, my grandparents were gone, people who my Ma never spoke to, started talking to her, oftentimes in a very unusual tongue. And the mystery made it worse - I detest secrecy. Finally, I was reunited with my Dad.
Next morning, we went to a store and my Mom bought this Kodak camera. It looked like they talked about it for a long, long while and I wondered, if it was appropriate of me then to let out an earth-shattering shriek, to let the world know, I hated being ignored - I wanted to get back my Mom.
So this was the camera we carried as we got out of the train at Penn Station in NY City for the first time, with a mind at ease, that we were all together at last.
The first encounter with any city is no different from another, as an ungainly multitude of traffic of people and automobiles and sights and sounds and matter in all shapes and sizes impinges upon the unsuspecting newbie. I'd been here a hundred times before, but today the city felt unforgivingly cruel- what with a baby in a pram, and a spouse who had realized that her partner was in a mess.
That's precisely the moment when Art beckons us. As if to console us or perhaps to relieve us of the stress of encountering the unknown. Art happens - just the way we happen on earth - like a new technology erupts. Suddenly.
So was this picture born. At age 5, Aloha drew this image on my PC with the mouse. I guess he was remembering the fishies in the aquarium on the long verandah of his grand-parents’ house in faraway Kolkata.
The weekend rolled by -- a wet Saturday followed by a sparkling Sunday -- reminding me of good old Shillong in the late seventies. Fall is here and our campus in Central New Jersey looks like a child's pastel box. Tree lines blend their way into each other’s arms through the warm and vibrant spectrum of the rainbow.
With the mercury dropping suddenly to 3 or 4 degree below freezing, as a spillover from Wilma that had hit the east coast this Saturday, all one needed to pep up the spirits was a couple of shots of St. Remy's brandy over sun-kissed orange juice.
Hopped onto a nearly empty car on the NE Corridor line, and slept like a child while dreams unfurled by themselves, blending in images and sounds from this land and ours, until someone shook me up - “ Hey Mister, this is the last stop, it’s Penn Station.”
Moseyed around Harlem - with a fancy wide-brimmed golfer’s umbrella I’d bought, all of Saturday evening trying to get a feel for the place. I’d had enough of the glitzy, ostentatious towers of Manhattan. A photographer’s eye longed to check out the derelict chapters of the architecture you so often catch in the movies with the backdrop of New York. I wanted to see the people for real.
Aside from the arrogantly steely steeples of Manhattan these brick townhouses probably best represent New York. Here's where all the Jazz and the Blues and Albee and the Vito Corleone stuff got brewed. Here’s where all the subway car chases usually end up or begin.
The graffiti is stunning. It says somewhere in bold letters "Detox the ghetto" and the adrenaline in my blood starts pumping. I check the time in the pouring rain and it is 10 minutes to midnight. I check out a girl cop in one corner talking over the radio as a three-wheeler buggy with an Adonis-faced cop pulls up and shouts out a word of courage to her.
I can sense how pale she looks, standing nervily in the cold from the driving rain.
This is die-hard part 3 territory, I mutter to myself under my raspy breath.
The Chinese woman who sells me the umbrella thinks I’m Hispanic too. So she tries to speak to me in a strange sounding mixture, and then, immediately as she realizes her limitations, she quickly retreats to a wah-wah mix of Chinese and American English. I am the last customer for her. Along the way to the ill lit subway station, I catch a few bouncers for the party and club bars lounging around nonchalantly.
Suddenly it’s past midnight and a train appears to materialize on the track from nowhere. A chilly breeze is blowing in from the river. It has none of the moisture the Hooghly night wind carries across South Calcutta. This breeze is arid and whistles on its way, coursing through the rusty scaffolding all around me.
The platform on the upper levels of the subway station is almost deserted except for a couple of Hispanic laborers in overalls, one of whom asks me “where goin-managatan ?” I nod and I announce loudly, “Yes, Manhattan”. The man enters the same car, carrying some sort of a toolkit. He almost stumbles over a burly man who’s lying on the floor, before he gets to his seat. I doubt he knows how to read or write English with much ease.
Outside, the rain lashes the old wrecked buildings, while the subway train trundles onward to the dream kingdom. I look longingly out towards the glistening far away lights of the city that never sleeps, recalling the faces of my wife and child, whom I have left behind in Calcutta until I’m settled in.
And then the words from a long forgotten Paul Verlaine poem from our days at the Alliance Francaise de Calcutta, effortlessly issues from my lips, and moistens my eyes:
It Rains in My Heart (Il pleure dans mon coeur)
It rains in my heart
As it rains on the town,
What languor so dark
That it soaks to my heart?
Oh, sweet sound of the rain
On the earth and the roofs!
For the dull heart again,
Oh, the song of the rain!
It rains for no reason
In this heart that lacks heart.
What? And no treason?
It’s grief without reason.
By far the worst pain,
Without hatred, or love,
Yet no way to explain
Why my heart feels such pain,
Without hatred, or love,
Yet no way to explain
Why my heart feels such pain!
I don’t know who they are. Where they come from. Where they go.
But they're the ones who keep our windows clean.
I know our office employs them on a contract with some agency. So hopefully they're legal immigrants, who once dreamed of coming to America, to pursue a beaten path of the great American dream thing!
Go over the fence, find an agent who can give you a day job, find another for a night job. Between these two paychecks, contain your ambitions, and retrofit your dream. Bring your family over too and get your wife to help too. Scrimp and save, so you can manage expenses for your child's upbringing. don’t worry about public schooling - That’s free. As long as you're paying taxes, you should be good. As long as your visa is stamped, you're good. As long as you haven’t committed a crime, you're good.
So did this man and so did his brother; and they met Carlos or Roberto or Wendy to keep the cogwheels of the machine running. On Sundays they drink beer together and barbecue some pork ribs. They tell their cousin back home in Guatemala, "Life's swell- you need to join us".
In summer they cut corn for 15 days- and that keeps them qualified to work as agricultural labor in the US; the rest of the time they do landscaping, they do cleaning, or work in the pizzeria as Roberto's cousin's help.
Theirs' is a performance, although they do not speak or sing. They expend their labor, their breath, and their lithe upper arms, almost as if they were controlling large Muppets. I cannot help feeling like a Muppet in a glass case afloat a couple hundred feet off the ground. And in this theater, I am the sole audience member with a participatory role. I haven’t left my brains upon my desk, as I perhaps could have done, as is expected of me. From time to time, my phone rings: Bertolt Brecht calling, to break in with a little ditty. No, it’s Kafka, calling from the bank: we approved your auto-loan, but your insurance didn’t.
Behind the glass panes, people are walking in and out as in Strindberg’s Dream play.
Agnes the daughter of the Vedic god Indra has come to experience Earth and meets 40 characters, who drag her into their own suffering – poverty, cruelty and the travails of family life…
Agnes suffers and is convinced that mankind is to be pitied. And but then she awakes from her dream.
But the poet who’s conjured up this dream play escapes all suffering.
So, who cares who the cleaners are? They're just hands and legs and eyes and ears, that the nation needs to remain neat and manicured so the nation can attract visionaries, who look out of clean windows at the world beyond.
Windows gather dirt from everywhere
Every year, year after year, we need to keep our vision clean.
Windows mean a lot to us
After all, this is the land of dreams.
Everyone here is out to barter their brain and brawn for the American dream.
(Posted July 10, 2022)
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Sketches from an Immigrant’s Life