Immigrant Bengalis

As I jog down memory lane, August 22, 1969 crops up from time to time. It was a distinctly memorable day in my life, the day I started mytrip westward to the land of opportunity, USA. This is the country to which I emigrated and where I have lived for the rest of my life. That trip to USA remains vividly etched in my memory even after more than forty-six years. Needless to say, parts of it have been fading. I shall be recounting this trip in what follows.

I grew up in a very middle class neighborhood in central Calcutta and studied Physics at Presidency College for my Bachelor's degree and then at the Rajabazar Science College for the Master's. From the time I entered college, I had the dream of going to America for higher studies. However, it took a fairly long time for this dream to come true. There were hopes and expectations but I never  believed that  I could really make it to a graduate school in the US and get financial aid as well.  My family was in no position to pay for my graduate studies abroad. Luckily I got both admission and financial aid from the University of Maryland in College Park, MD, which had an excellent program in Physics. Interestingly my close friend, Shyamalendu, also got a similar offer from the same university. At that time it was rare for two students from the same Indian university to be admitted to the same American  university. Having a close friend in a foreign country was definitely going to be a big help.

That brings us to the start of our preparation for the trip. This really got very interesting. Shyamalendu and I started talking to travel agencies to plan our trip. An agency named Tradewings on Chowringhee Road usually made travel arrangements for US-bound Calcutta University students. However, we soon came to believe that they were not giving us a good deal. A friend of ours suggested Orchid Travel, which was another travel agency also on Chowringhee Road. They seemed to be very nice and friendly, a lot friendlier than Tradewings. So we switched from Tradewings to Orchid. This, of course, created some ill feelings with Tradewings. At first we were a group of three but the group quickly grew to five. So we presented a  nice-sized account to them.

Orchid accepted us with open arms and gave us the opportunity to schedule stopovers en route to USA. We prized such an opportunity, since it allowed us to see more of the world. Our initial group included Shyamalendu, Samir and myself. We had been together from high school through college. Then came Shyamal and Samir’s friend Santanu Das (Santanu-da) of Jadavpur University, and Arun Chowdry of IIT-Kharagpur whom we met at the travel agency. That completed our travel group of the “fearless five”. Santanu-da, as we called him since he was a few years senior, was going to the Washington University in St Louis; Arun was going to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, not very far from us in College Park, Maryland; and Samir was going to Indiana University  in Bloomington.

Orchid managed to schedule four stopovers for us: Zurich, London, Paris and Amsterdam, in that odd order. Airlines paid the hotel charges in full for three of these stopovers, and we arranged our stay in London with our friends. However, due to severe foreign exchange crisis in India at that time, the Government of India allowed only a mere pittance of $8 of foreign exchange for each student going to USA on scholarship. Thus the “fearless five” started their journey to the distant land of USA almost penniless. In this day and age this is probably unthinkable since India has an abundant foreign exchange reserve.

The day of travel was bittersweet. I used to play an old organ in our house, and I played one of my favorite songs “Megher pore megh jomecchee” (Clouds are piling up in the sky) for the last time before parting. My mother joined me and sang the song while I kept playing. It was a famous song by Tagore. Tears rolled down my eyes thinking of the impending separation from my near and dear ones. I wondered when I would get the chance to play for my mom again -- and if I would even see her again. Overseas travel was not easy or cheap in those days. Because of the expense, there was no thought of coming back after a short stay. I did not know if Ma also wiped her tears but she was brave enough not to show any sadness. A son leaving for USA for higher studies was a proud moment for her.

The flight was in the evening and I put on a suit and a tie for the first time in my life. I did not know how to knot a tie, so someone helped me. A number of our relatives came to see me off at the Dum Dum airport. I thought that our large contingent of relatives would be overwhelming. Little did I know how many of Santanu da’s students would come! Our large family contingent of 30-40 was simply dwarfed by the sea of students who came to see off Santanu da. He was apparently a really popular person at Jadavpur University. Ma lightly bit my pinkie, a traditional gesture in Bengal designed to ward off all evil during journeys, and we said goodbyes

In those days Dum Dum was the biggest airport in India, so most big planes used to land in Calcutta. We got our eight dollars of foreign exchange at the airport and boarded the KLM plane. I had one suitcase full of clothing and a KLM handbag. I also took a few of my favorite textbooks, tied together with a belt which looked very odd, but since they are reading material, airlines could not object to my carrying them. Unfortunately my family members did not have any camera, so absolutely no photographs of that event exist. Interestingly, my future wife, Chandra, came to the airport that day to see one of her friends off who was also departing for America on the same flight. I did not know her well at that time. Looking back, it was really a strange coincidence.

That was the first time I was inside an airplane. I remember a strange smell and almost felt like throwing up. We were not seated together, and I suddenly felt very lonely. Tears came rolling down my eyes as I regretted the stupid decision of going to a distant country for higher studies. I was fine at home, could have studied or worked in India! After a while, I arranged with the person in the seat next to me to exchange places with my friend Shyamal. After chatting with Shyamal, I felt a bit better. The next adventure was the food. I remember two things: one a salad type of item called bird’s nest, and a hard roll. I did not have a great deal of familiarity with foreign food and hated the looks of them. I did not touch the bird’s nest but looked at my neighbor who split the hard roll, so I followed him. I remember it tasted horrible.

Our route took us from  Calcutta to Karachi, Cairo, Athens and then Zurich, our first planned stopover. We were allowed to deplane in Karachi, Cairo and Athens. When we reached Karachi it was probably around midnight. We were given laminated passes, and a bus took us to the terminal. We relaxed at the Karachi transit lounge. They had an open air area with railings outside the lounge. We all stood there and enjoyed the midnight smell of the Karachi airport.

Back to the plane again and off to Cairo. By that time it was very early in the morning, so the sky was becoming clear. I have no further recollection of Cairo. Our next stop was Athens. I felt excited to be in historic Athens, although it was just the transit lounge at the airport. The lounge looked magnificent with large statues of Greek gods and goddesses and many famous Greek historical figures.

Next stop was Zurich which was our first stopover on this trip. It was our first time out of the airport and onto real European soil! We finally arrived in Zurich -- a large city in the picturesque country of Switzerland -- in the heart of the Alps. The houses were very pretty and built in an architectural style unfamiliar to me at that time.  The city was full of lakes with extra clean tramcars going through the streets. The people walking the streets were dressed immaculately. KLM took care of us well. They provided transportation, baggage transfer to and from our comfortable hotel, all food and lodging etc. The first problem that affected me was the fact that the hotel restaurant had plenty of food but no rice could be seen anywhere. Having grown up in India, it was hard for me to imagine that there were people in the world who survived without the daily taste of rice. I do not recall what we ate but certainly I felt half-fed with no rice on our plates.

Next afternoon we had to leave for the city of London. An interesting thing happened that very morning. We bought a couple of picture postcards to write home. That was all we could afford. Now we needed a post office. We tried to ask a few people for directions to a post office. Most people we tried did not understand English. At that point our German language learning in Max Mueller Bhavan in Calcutta came to the rescue. Fresh from our two-year study of German, we could speak a sentence or two in that language to get the direction to the post office. Lo and behold, a guy in the street understood our broken German, and he directed us to the post office.

So we were off to London now. We were to stay with our friends Kumu and Samirda and not at the airlines expense. So we could spend at most the $8 each we brought from home for our living expense for a couple of days. Our friends lived in a small apartment in London, and they rented a small room for us from their landlady. I do not remember what it cost but it had to be a few dollars which we had no problem spending from our big pot of $8 each. I vaguely remember that they took us to see the famous sights such as the Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, Piccadilly, etc. The one spot which stood out was Greenwich. I remember that we all stood with our two feet on two sides of the Meridian line and Samirda took a picture. I never got a chance to see the picture though. Samirda and Kumu were excellent hosts and we had a great time for the three days we stayed with them. Samirda took all of us to see an adult movie which was an interesting experience for us. So on the 27th of August, 1969, we were done with London and left for Paris.

It was all too exciting for us. I kept thinking that this kid from the Banchharam Akrur Lane in a dingy part of Calcutta was going to the most advanced country in the world, and in the process was visiting the prime tourist destinations of the world on his first trip outside the home country. I felt totally awed at that. Life can take you to places that you never could imagine. London, Paris, Zurich were all dream lands before that. Not one relative of mine except for my sister had ever stepped outside the country.

In the afternoon of 27th of August, 1969, we landed in the beautiful city of Paris. We did not have money to go see the Louvre museum but we walked around many sections of the city. What I remember now are the many stone buildings and arches and especially Champs Elysses -- the famous thoroughfare in Paris. Since this stopover was also all paid for by the airline, including bus transportation to and from the hotel and luggage transfers, we did not have to think of any expense, and each of us still had a substantial amount of the $8 still in our pocket. A few interesting things happened in Paris which I still remember. First, one of us noticed that the legs of many exquisitely dressed Parisian ladies looked kind of funny. We finally figured out that the ladies were wearing transparent socks. In India we only saw ladies wearing saris and did not knew about nylons. It became a fun game for us to guess which lady was wearing nylons. Today I cannot stop laughing when I think about the five of us in our early twenties on our maiden journey abroad playing a guessing game on the streets of Paris while glancing at the legs of women. I also had a scary experience on Champs de Elysses. We were about to cross that street when the light changed from red to green and the cars zoomed forward. Remember that coming from India, we were not used to cars traveling on the “wrong” side. So I hurriedly jumped back to the pavement to avoid an accident.

The next day we headed to Amsterdam. Again the same routine: get on the bus to the airport in Paris, get on the plane and then off to our destination. I had gotten used to the smell of the airplane by then . My arms were aching by then from carrying my KLM bag and those heavy physics books strapped together with a belt. After an hour or so we reached the Schiphol airport in Amsterdam. It was brand new at that time and very large and impressive. After reaching our hotel, we splurged within our eight dollar budget and took a canal cruise in the evening. I do not remember how much it cost but it was well within our budget since I landed in New York with a few dollars to spare. The cruise was memorable because they served glasses of champagne to us. That was the first time I consumed alcohol in my life, one more of the “firsts” during our journey to USA.

Next day was the last day of our trip, and we arrived at the airport on time for our final flight to the promised land. This time the KLM gate crew gave me a real hard time because of the string of books I was hand carrying. In the process we missed our flight to New York and had to catch the next flight a few hours later. The airlines told us they will call and inform my sister in New York about the delay but they did not. It was the longest of our flights. On that flight there was an American kid who showed us an interesting ballpoint pen. The pen carried the picture of a girl on its upper part but when you lowered the pen for writing, the girl's clothes slowly disappeared, revealing her naked body. It was a fun sight but the experience filled me with skepticism about sexuality in USA. Interestingly, passengers on this flight were much more lively than people on our previous flights. Finally we arrived at JFK after our week-long trip with our baggage, books and X-ray plates in our hands. That X-ray plate was mandatory for all passengers arriving from less-developed countries like India to make sure they were not carrying tuberculosis. By then my homesickness had disappeared and I was looking forward to seeing my sister and brother-in-law in NYC. It was a great delight when I saw my sister waiting outside the customs area at JFK. That was August 29, 1969.

Thus ended our long journey to USA, and we all reached the “new world” that was so different from India. We were full of apprehension but also filled with hope and ambition.

 (Posted February 1, 2016)

Readers interested in commenting on this article should send their remarks to amitabhanj@gmail.com or debsmee572@gmail.com

Comments received on Feb 1, 2016 from Sudhansu S: 

" I read the subject article by Rajat and just loved it. I loved it so much so that I read it twice, reason being that I could relate to the story with my own. If you change the date from August 29, 1969 to March 17, 1971, rest of the story is pretty much the same, except I had few dollars more ($16) in my pocket. 

I really enjoy the articles in “Immigrant Bengalis.com” --- nostalgic! 

I really admire the editors for spending so much of their valuable time to publish something like this which I enjoy immensely."


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Coming the Long Way to America

Rajat Basu