Immigrant Bengalis

Memorable Days in the Life of an Immigrant
Krishna Chakrabarty

 In my long life, there have been many special days and special moments that I still remember vividly. There were joyful days and there were days of pain, but they could have only happened because I had left the country of my birth and was living in my adopted country.


September 1961


I am standing on the deck of the ship and approaching San Francisco Harbor. I can see the Golden Gate Bridge and the Twin Peaks. I am 20 years old and am arriving in USA for the first time as a graduate student at the University of California Davis. I don’t know a single person in USA. I don’t have any idea how Americans look and how they sound. (There was no TV in India then and I had not even seen any pictures.) I am not scared. I am not thinking of myself as an immigrant. I am just a student who would complete her studies and go back home in a few years, but I am worried of the next step. Is anybody going to come to the harbor to pick me up, or am I going to be stranded? (There was no phone or email in those days.) I am also awestruck by the sheer beauty of the city skyline in the early morning. I am almost forgetting to be afraid.


When we came ashore, I found that my fears were unfounded.  Not one, but three people came to receive me: Shyamal and Preeti Bagchi from San Francisco, and Gurdev Khush -- a post-doctoral student from Davis. I had written to Shyamalda earlier, having obtained his address from someone in Kolkata, and Gurdev had been sent by the foreign students’ office in Davis. At Boudi’s insistence, I stayed with the Bagchis that night, and Gurdev went back to Davis. He didn’t mind, because he had the use of the campus car that day. Next day, Dada and Boudi drove me to Davis and I settled down in my dorm room. I have kept in touch with my friends all these years. After a very illustrious career as a scientist, Gurdev and his wife have settled down in Davis. Shyamalda has also retired and lives in a town near Davis, but my beloved Boudi has passed away. All these years have passed and every year, the first Christmas card that used to arrive from Boudi, does not come any more!


October 1963


I have just passed my Ph.D. qualifying exam. Professors from different departments have asked me stimulating questions and have thankfully decided that I am capable of independent research. I am going to call my parents tonight! You can’t just dial a number. You have to book a call and then the telephone company calls you to say that the line connection is available. The call only lasts one minute and my parents understand that I will be allowed to start my research project for Ph.D. This is the only call I made during my entire stay in California. My best friend and fellow graduate student, Keith Murray, gave me a gift and paid for that call. I still remember the excitement I felt when I was talking to my father. He was the reason I had come abroad.  Years later, Keith visited me when I was in India and met my parents. He visited me a couple more times when I lived in Illinois. He is no longer with us. His life tragically ended when he was only in his thirties. No one will ever know the circumstances of his death, but I will never forget his kindness and that gift, which allowed me to share the good news with my parents.


May 6, 1966


It is Friday evening in Urbana, Illinois. I am home alone. My husband and I are postdocs at University of Illinois. He has gone out to see a campus movie for 50 cents. I would have gone with him, too, but I wasn’t feeling well that night and decided to stay home. Soon after he left, my labor pains suddenly started.  I am not smart enough to realize that I was about to give birth to my first child. Suddenly the doorbell rang. Somehow I am able to open the door and I am staring at a total stranger. Her features are coming into focus, but there is only one thing I have to say to her. Please take me to Carle Hospital! I am going to have a baby!  She figured that out by looking at me. She immediately escorted me into her car and took me to the hospital. I don’t remember too much more about that fateful day, except that later that night, my daughter Kaberi was born. Who was that lady?  An angel from heaven?  A Goddess in disguise?  Why did she appear at my door that evening?  No one knows for sure. Apparently she had been to India the previous month and met my mother somewhere.  My mother had given her my address. I had not told even my mother that I was pregnant, but somehow this lady decided to visit me at the right time. I never saw her again and I don’t even know her name. Later I thought that I might have imagined her, but my husband told me afterwards that someone had called him at home, when he returned from the movie, and asked him to go to the hospital. I still wonder if she still lives in Urbana!


June 1975


I am living in Latham, New York and I am on the phone talking with my brother-in-law. My parents have just arrived in New York. They are visiting us for the first time. I am so happy and excited that I am literally jumping up and down. There are more of us now for my parents to visit. We have two children. My younger sister came to Cleveland last year, after her marriage. My brother had immigrated to America a few years ago and was now living in Washington, DC.  So all the three children of my parents were living in USA. They came, visited all of us, and went back after three months, but I will never forget the excitement I felt on the day of their first visit.


July 1982


We are living in a suburb of Chicago now. I am at the doctor’s office. I am by myself. I have detected a lump in my breast and I have come to the doctor to check it out. He is an HMO doctor and I have not seen him before in my life. He is very efficient. He performs a biopsy and informs me on the same day that the biopsy is positive. He schedules a mastectomy 5 days later. I agree, without consulting anybody else. The surgery takes place. I choose not to undergo any other treatment like radiation or chemotherapy. My gamble pays off. I recover with no side effects. The cancer has not returned as yet. I could be wrong, but I believe such efficient treatment and positive outcome are unusual in any country, and would not have happened if I had remained in India. I am very lucky. So many of my relatives and friends have died of breast cancer. They were preventable deaths. My mother had breast cancer after I did and she was treated successfully, partly because of my experience.


May 26, 1990


I am at Northwestern Military Academy in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.  My family and close friends are with me. My son, Asit, is graduating from high school today. He is in uniform and he looks good, marching with his classmates. Four years ago, he was having trouble in school and we did not think he was going to graduate from high school, ever. He is graduating today. Later we will see that he will also manage  to graduate from college, hold a job and buy his own house.


May 1993


I am at a convocation at the University of Illinois College of Medicine. It is being held outdoors under a tent. I am walking with other faculty members and I am on my way to the podium. A student walks up to me and straightens my stole. I am getting a teaching award today. The medical students  have selected me to be the recipient this year. I give a short speech. I am thinking of my father. He would have been so happy! 


June 26, 2009


I am walking up to my son Asit’s house. I am knocking on his door. I have not heard from him in 3 days. This is unusual, because he calls every day. It is Friday evening. I have convinced my husband that we should go to his house and check on him. Nobody opens the door. Asit had given me his keys when he moved into his new house. I open the door.  We both see him. He is lying down in front of the TV, which is ON Pause.  So is Asit. He does not get up and greet us. I walk up to him, bend down and touch him. He feels cold.  I understand at once that he is dead.


I mechanically call 911. I give them the address. The police come. An ambulance comes. They do what they have to do.  I call my nephew, my daughter, my sister. At least I have someone to call. They call our other friends. An autopsy is carried out. Two days later we cremate him. We never find out why he died. This is one of the perks of being an immigrant. Unmarried children live alone in their own houses and live independent lives. Parents don’t know the details of their lives. There are no servants to do your bidding. A mother is forced to discover her own son’s body. She has to take care of everything else that follows. Yes, my son could have died, even if we lived in India, but I don’t think I would have had such an active role in this painful episode. This day was without a doubt the worst day in my life. I have seen and heard of many other mothers grieving for their children in worse circumstances and in many countries, but certainly circumstances change when you move to another country.


May 6, 2016


My daughter Kaberi is 50 years old. Our extended family, which includes our nephew and his wife and kids, are gathered around the TV, watching the show Jeopardy on ABC TV. Kaberi is participating in a teacher’s tournament and is one of the 15 quarterfinalists.  By coincidence, this pre-taped show is being broadcast on her birthday. All of us are watching the show with rapt attention, although at least one of us, my husband, has never watched this quiz show before.  Kaberi has been interested in playing trivia all her life. We always thought that was a waste of time, but her immense knowledge pays off. Kaberi does not win this a prticular game, but is selected to be one of the nine semifinalists to go on. Later she makes it to the final game and becomes the runner-up, winning $50.000! Since this show is watched nationwide, many of our friends watch the show and congratulate us. Apparently, Bengali immigrants are rarely seen in Jeopardy. Some Bengali fans are especially proud!


A memorable day yet to come!


In enumerating my special days, I have not mentioned my husband Ananda’s accomplishments, even though he has received many awards so far, as a result of his research. Our decision to live in USA was mainly due to his work. We felt that he would be able to serve India and the world better by working in USA, where he had more opportunities to pursue his ideas. There is at least one more memorable day I would like to have before I die.  I would like to see cancer become a curable disease partially as a result of his research. Of course, many scientists are working towards this cause. I know it is going to happen. I just don’t know when. I hope I am still lucid enough to understand the significance, when it does happen.


(Posted December 1, 2016)


Note: Readers interested in commenting on this article should email their remarks to or

Comments received from Parveen C. on December 6, 2013: "We would like to reproduce this article in one of our publications: The South Asian Times weekly newspaper or The Asian Era magazine (both published from New York for the Indian community in America). Please see if more pictures are available from the author.Thank you."

Comments received from Swapna B. on December 13, 2016:  "I read this article with great interest because I could relate to each experience personally. I am the author’s younger sister who had been present during many of these experiences that she had gone through. I can also provide some clarification regarding the identity of the “Angel from Heaven… a Goddess in disguise” whom she had encountered on May 6, 1966. I was a college student in Kolkata at that time and had attended a western style party thrown by one of my college class mates. At this party I met a young American couple. The husband was a doctor from USA who had been working in India as a Peace Corp volunteer. They were on their way back to the USA, so I invited them to visit my home and family. When they came, we found out that his mother, coincidentally, lived in the same city as my sister. My mother gave him my sister’s address and he told us that he would send it to his mother the next time he wrote to her (yes, people wrote letters in those days to communicate). This lady never visited us and none of us knew her name. By a strange providence this lady chose to visit my sister on the very day when she was needed the most. Why the acquaintance was never continued I don’t know. She was indeed meant to act as an Angel from Heaven for my sister."

Comments received from Debu M. on December 13, 2016: "All these 3 articles are fascinating.,. Thank you for your efforts in bringing out the enthusiasm among the Bengalis here to write about their experiences."