Immigrant Bengalis

Of Friendship And A Minor Miracle
Amitabha Bagchi

In the summer of 1970, I had completed my graduate studies, defended my dissertation, and was ready to go back to India to see my parents. I had not seen them for five years and wished to spend a month with them. I borrowed money to buy round-trip tickets and shared my plan with family and friends. Then came an unexpected hitch that threatened to derail the entire trip.

What happened was that the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) denied the routine 18-month extension of my student (F-1) visa for practical traineeship. They asked me instead to start the process of applying for the immigrant visa straightaway. It was indeed an interesting period of American history: the country was fighting a war in Asia at the same time as it was opening up immigration opportunity to persons of Asian descent!

The INS dictate might have looked like serendipity to most people. In my situation, however, it was a most unwelcome development. On one hand, the application for a “Green Card” would require me to stay in the US till the completion of the immigration process – a period of some 12 plus months at that time. That would mean the cancellation of the long-awaited India trip. On the other hand, I needed an upgraded visa status to work legally in the country on a job that I had already accepted. I was between a rock and a hard place. There was an additional cloud on the horizon: If I immigrated too soon, I would be eligible for the draft and could end up fighting in Vietnam.  

I did some quick thinking to save both my trip and the employment offer. The Commencement ceremony at my university was still a few months away, and I reasoned that arguably I remained a student till I formally got my degree. Armed with this argument (or was it sophistry?), I went to the Foreign Students Office and convinced them to issue me an I-20 form.

I worried that going back to the American Consulate in Calcutta a second time for a student visa might raise eyebrows. To minimize risk, I slipped into Tijuana with an American friend and got a multiple entry F-1 visa from the US Consulate. That allowed me to go through the border checkpoint and return to the US legitimately, although my exact alien status was ambiguous at best.

*** *** ***

With my visa situation squared away, in a manner of speaking, my attention turned to travel, and especially to packing. I saw the need to buy a suitcase.

Allow me to digress a bit. When I left India to come to the States, the country was under the thrall of a Nehruvian concept called the Socialist Pattern of Society. It had a mixed economy of private and public sectors – a coexistence of capitalism and socialism if you will – where the playing field was tilted in favor of the latter. Post-Independence India’s limited resources were directed more toward capital intensive Government projects – such as the building of dams and steel mills – and less toward consumer goods. Small wonder the consumer products we had were shoddy by international standards, and that included suitcases and portmanteaus. I remember lugging a soft-side suitcase while exiting India -- bulging in all directions under the weight of 44 lbs. (the maximum allowable by airlines) of mainly my articles of clothing. This was backed up by a metal trunk, lovingly packed by my mother with my other possessions and assorted memorabilia, which was sent by ship and later retrieved at a seaport.

America is of course, if nothing else, a paradise for consumer goods. It is also without peer in imaginative and eye-catching advertisements that pitch those consumer goods. Right around the time I was ready to travel, I became aware of a brand of hard-shell suitcases called Samsonite. The TV ad that I remember most showed a gorilla in a cage jumping up-and-down and stomping on a Samsonite suitcase without causing a single dent. I was admittedly gullible and not into fact-checking; I knew the type of suitcase I had to carry on my trip.

Except for one small catch: the price. I was on a graduate-student salary – marginally above the poverty level – and had a loan (for the ticket price) to pay off. So I opted for a Samsonite clone from Sears. I still remember the color – Charcoal Gray. I have never loved a suitcase as much before or since

*** *** ***

The day finally arrived for me to embark on my trip. The journey to Calcutta was broken into several segments and involved multiple airlines. The first leg was a flight from Los Angeles to London using TWA.

Two close friends, both graduate students from India, offered to take me from La Jolla to the Los Angeles airport in one of their cars. We ate lunch at our favorite Mexican restaurant and started merrily on our way. The roughly two-hour trip was uneventful, and we reached the airport in time. My friends were with me when I went to check in my suitcase at the airline counter. I put my hand in my pocket and – like a proverbial bolt from the blue! – discovered that my keys were missing!

My heart sank, my head started spinning, and I turned ashen. What will happen to my favorite suitcase? I pictured in my mind’s eye not gorillas but Customs folks in India stomping on my suitcase. With crowbars in hand and malevolent smiles, they were forcibly prying open the front locks, breaking the suitcase in the process. It would be damaged beyond repair – or so I thought – and my Samsonite-lite would be wrecked and turned useless.

My friends noticed my agitation and I quickly explained the cause. Where did I lose my keys? And what action, if any, could they take to retrieve the same?

It was time to take stock of the situation. It was possible – just possible, but far from certain – that I had lost my keys in the Mexican restaurant. And a look at the airport’s monitor showed that the TWA flight was two hours late.

With surpassing alacrity, my friends made up their minds. They would go back to the restaurant to search for the keys. The idea seemed to me crazy and preposterous, but what could I say? I wished them godspeed, slumped into a chair, and stared blankly at the TV screen. It would take my friends a minimum of four hours to go and come back from San Diego.

Sometime later, the TV monitor showed the TWA flight to be late by three hours. I was surprised, but my hopes didn’t go up too high. Some more time passed, and now the screen was showing the flight to be delayed by four hours! It was incredible. But what was even more incredible was that, as I stood in line to board the plane, my two buddies showed up with my missing keys!

*** *** ***

Several thoughts come to mind as I look back on the episode.

First and foremost, how easy it was back then for non-traveling public to move around in airports. It was long before the days of security checks and screenings to permit only ticketed passengers to proceed to the gates. An extreme case is India, where only bona fide passengers are admitted inside airport terminals. In today’s world, my friends would have no chance at all to get close enough to me to hand over the keys.

Second, I was almost absurdly lucky. My friends found my keys, which had slipped out of my pocket, on exactly the same spot where I had been sitting to eat lunch.

Finally, the flight delay, which I might have thought annoying in any other circumstance, actually worked to my advantage. I found it intriguing how TWA timed the information flow and let it dribble out slowly: the delay that started out as two hours ended up being twice as much. I suspect it is an airlines industry practice to let out bad news like flight delays slowly, so as to soften the impact on passengers.

How to interpret my extraordinary luck? For whatever reason, stars did align right for me. Should I indulge in hyperbole and refer to the event as a miracle – albeit a minor one?


(Posted April 1, 2024)

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 Comments received from Bakul B. on April 10, 2024:

​"Thank you for the delightful article. It was great that you had such dedicated friends. 
I noticed your graduation date and immediately thought of the draft possibilities.
You have penned the complex situation with only a few masterful strokes"