Immigrant Bengalis


The Longest First Day


Subhash Sen

Fifty long years ago on the afternoon of July 25, 1970, I landed at New York’s JFK Airport from Hamburg, Germany aboard a Lufthansa flight. This was after spending a night in London and a night in Hamburg. Those days the airlines used to give two layovers in any two European cities when flying from India to the US. London was normally the usual stop-over, but why Hamburg, Germany of all places? I still have not figured it out. I came from India by Kuwait Airways where the fare was a little cheaper compared to the more established airlines like TWA, Pan AM (both now defunct), or Air India. Hence, maybe it was Hamburg as a stop back then for Kuwait Airways instead of Paris or Rome. I still remember the fare was Rs. 4500 on Kuwait Airways as compared to Rs 5000 on any other bigger airlines. By the way, I landed in New York with $15 in my pocket. If I had taken a bigger airliner, London would be 1 hop from Bombay in 7 hours, but with Kuwait Airways, I stopped at Abu Dhabi, Kuwait, Athens, Rome and finally London after 20 hours. I never realized 500 Rupees less would let me see 4 more airports and the aerial views of those cities in the Middle_East and Europe.

At this point let me digress a little bit and talk about my background and my interest in coming to America.   I grew up in a Bengali middle-class family in south Calcutta and studied Mechanical Engineering at the National Institute of Technology in Durgapur.  My affinity for America started due to the influence of Hollywood movies and Western pop music.  I also had several relatives in foreign countries and my affinity for foreign countries was also influenced by the stories of their luxurious lives. I was very mediocre in studies and realized that with my academic records, I would have difficulty getting admission in US universities, let alone getting any financial aid for study.  Instead of coming to American universities after my graduation, I could have followed the path of my many engineering friends who were applying for permanent residency in America. That possibility had just opened for mainly engineering graduates.  However, that path was strongly opposed by my sister, who was already in America with her husband. She argued that the US-Vietnam war was in full swing and even the immigrants could be drafted to serve in the military and be sent to Vietnam.  I also found out from the initial inquiry that if I pursued the immigration path further, I would not be able to obtain any other visa during the waiting period which could be years long.  Since my sister would be my guardian in America and I needed their support after I got here, I decided to stop the immigration application and tried to concentrate on admission somewhere else.  During that period, I saw a movie at the Calcutta Indo-American Society about Howard University in Washington, DC, which is the second best of the Historical Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU). I saw lots of Indian students there and found out that it was cheaper to attend and being a minority university there were lots of federal grants available for graduate studies.  Around the same time, one of my classmates applied to Howard University and joined there in the spring semester of 1969. Once he had settled there, he helped me immensely to get admission in the 1970 fall semester.  Around that time, I was very well-informed about the plight of the black people in America and knew about their struggle. I became very sympathetic to their cause and that feeling was further amplified by my friend's account of life in Howard University.  While I was waiting for my admission and visa papers, the political situation of West Bengal changed considerably, and a pro-Chinese radical leftist party named Naxalites was formed, which had an immense influence on the student community of Calcutta. Lots of my friends became very sympathetic to their cause and asked me to attend political rallies at a local university.  With ample time on my hand, I started attending the rallies out of curiosity and felt the air of adventure.  In addition, I was also reading about the massive anti-Vietnam war protests in America, led mainly by the students, and found many similarities with the Naxalite anti-Vietnam protests in Calcutta. I found all of that remarkably interesting.  Eventually, when my admission and the visa papers came through, I felt that only my body was in India, while my mind was wandering the streets of Washington or New York.  I remember that just before leaving for the US, I went to see the movie “In the Heat of the Night” (starring Sydney Poitier and Rod Steiger), where I saw Sydney Poitier put a coin in the coke machine and get a bottle of coke in a couple seconds.  I thought this would be the first thing that I would do in New York when I finally landed up there.

As soon as I landed in New York the fun began. Though my destination was Washington, DC, I was planning to spend a week in New York City (NYC), since my semester would begin in late September. My uncle (mama), who had just moved to New Jersey (close to NYC) just 7 days earlier by emigrating from Canada, was supposed to pick me up from the airport and take me to New Jersey. Due to some miscommunication, he thought my arrival date was July 26th instead of the 25th. Just think: my first time in America, after my first plane flight with just 15 dollars in my pocket, and my mama was nowhere to be found at the airport! I only had my aunt's phone number at her Hospital, which she had joined 2/3 days before as a nurse. Since my uncle had just rented an apartment, they still did not have their new home phone connected to the telephone company’s network. (In those days, it took 7 days or more to have a new phone connection. The question these days is: what is a home phone?) To my amazement, I discovered that my aunt had just quit that job after working there for only 2 days in order to join a rival hospital in Jersey City for better pay. Luckily, I got the name and number of the new hospital from the directory assistance. All this was happening while I was spending almost an hour near the phone booth after changing one of my precious 15 dollars into 10 dimes. I reached the right hospital and found out that yes, she did work there, but she had left for the day at 6 PM. This was all after spelling out her name, Latika Roychowdhury, as L for London, A for America, T for Tom and so on to the hospital telephone operator, for what seemed like an eternity.

Now what? Who else did I know in New York? We used to hear about a distant relative (my cousin's sister-in-law) Rupali, also a nurse, whom I had never met and who also lived in New York and worked at the Mt. Sinai hospital.  So, I got her home number again, doing the usual routine of R for Robert, U for Umbrella.....but with my luck it was also a no-answer situation when I called that number. By then I was desperate and decided I would go to Center City by the Airport bus and then by Bus or by Subway I would land up at her place because I had the address. Before catching the bus, I also tried to call my sister and brother-in-law in Columbia, Missouri, some 1000 miles away from New York, and with my infernal luck found that they too were not reachable. But I heard this message, “The number you are calling is no longer in service." By the way, before leaving for the Center City, I had my coke from a vending machine like Sydney Poitier in that movie.

In the bus I met this young American guy who was a college student just returning from Ireland. I told him the story of my last one hour and asked him for his help to guide me at the Bus Stop. Judging by my desperation and helplessness, he decided to take me to Rupali's place. We landed up at Rupali's place and as usual found out that she was not home. Her hospital was next door, so we decided to go to the hospital and ask about her in case she was working in the evening shift. She was not there either, and one of her colleagues informed us that she was out for the weekend and would be back on Monday.

By then I decided that I would somehow go back to the airport and call my friend in Washington,DC to tell him the whole story and fly to Washington the next day, after  spending the night at the Airport. I figured 10 dollars in my pocket would not fetch me any hotel in New York.

When I told my new American friend my plan, he asked me to come to his place in Staten Island where he lived with his family. I could stay there that night and then make plans for my next move. Staten Island was just across the river and we had to reach there by a ferry. I was spellbound and in shock but realized that I came to the best country in the world, where in an hour this person understood my predicament and opened his heart and without any hesitation invited me in his house to spend the night. He called his father from the hospital and explained the situation and asked his permission to bring me home. In the ferry I was looking at all the skyscrapers of New York and thinking I was waiting so long to see this sight but never realized it would be under this duress. His father came in a 20 ft long Buick Electra (I read the name the next day) to pick us up.

Once there I called my friend in Washington from his house and he was bewildered to hear my story and totally surprised to find out that I was sitting in an American's house in Staten Island -- someone I had just met a couple of hours back in a bus -- and was now eating dinner with the family. He just could not comprehend what he had just heard from me. I tried to call my sister again and got to the same message as before.

The next morning, I decided to call the last person I knew to find the whereabouts of my brother-in law and that was his post-doctoral advisor Dr. Tom Storvic (I still remember that name).  If he were not there, I would go to the airport and leave for Washington. With one attempt I found him home and he told me that they were changing apartments that weekend and he was not sure if they had their new phone yet. He also told me that my brother-in-law had also told him that I was coming to Washington, DC to attend Howard University there but he was not sure when. But Dr. Storvic promised me that he would go to their new place immediately and would ask them to contact me soon. From my sister I got my mama's phone number. My aunt, being a nurse, could persuade the phone company to get them the new phone connection without any delay. When I called my uncle, I found out that he was getting ready to leave for the airport to receive me. If I had tried the directory assistance the night before from the airport, I would have found their number and he could have come to my rescue and ended my misery. My new American friend then took me back again to the New York Port Authority Bus Terminal to meet my uncle. Before I left their house, his father had taken me for lunch where I had my first big American Hamburger.

And all that time, I had a suit and a tie on.

I then spent a week with my mama and mamima in New Jersey before coming to Washington. During that period, I also met with the elusive Rupali and spent a day at her place.

One more thing: for the past 2 days the telephone number (Area Code) 555-1212 was my savior to find all the phone numbers that I was trying to reach desperately.

I had contact with my American friend and his father for 2 more years, but the friendship eventually faded with the passage of time.

*** *** ***

My story will not be complete without this epilogue. 

While I was frantically calling people from the airport, my wife (or should I say my future wife) was also present at the same airport around the same time, having landed from Delhi with her father. They had been in Washington since 1968, where her father worked at the Indian embassy. He took his daughter to India to join a college in Delhi. The story goes that she did not like the college Principal and did not want to be left alone in Delhi. So, she persuaded her father, who was also not very enthusiastic to leave her there, to take her back to America.  My mother-in-law was incensed and could not forgive either the father or the daughter for a long time because the latter was back. Who said that birth, marriage, and death are all preordained? We got married in 1973 in Washington and are now ready to celebrate our 47th anniversary on August 4th. I found her arrival date at New York on her old Indian passport.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

(Posted October 1, 2020)

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