Immigrant Bengalis

I never planned to settle in America.

I came here to study, and the promise to myself was that I would finish my studies and return to India and do my part in India’s economy. But almost half a century later, I am still here. Not that I did not try to keep my promise, but Lady Luck had different ideas.

When I came to America in the early seventies, the entry door had just been opened to the Asians (eventually it became a floodgate). Many of us came with student visas or permanent resident visas, all with our own sets of dreams and desires. I arrived with a green card and thus had the opportunity to work while studying.

In those days, America was a very different country for the Indian population. We were far fewer in number, and most Indians were in universities or lived in big cities like New York or Chicago. I had settled in Cleveland, which was then the tenth largest city in the country (true!). Even in this big city and its suburbs, we rarely bumped into an Indian in a public place. And when we did see someone in a place like a mall or a department store, we would approach without hesitation, exchange our phone numbers, and promise to meet again at either of our places.

And we did. Being a bachelor, I was an invitee most of the time. And in those dinner invitations, the host or hostess took a kind view of the poor students who were deprived of good home cooked meals. We completely agreed with that view and devoured the food unashamedly.

Most people we met had been in America for only a few years. If there was somebody who had been here for more than five years, our eyes widened with surprise – how could somebody live away from home for so many years? Little did we know of what lay ahead of us.

Anyway, as I had planned, I went to the university, and finished a couple of degrees. Many of my fellow Indian students were envious of my visa status, as they were under constant threat of losing their student visas. But they were good students, finished their degrees, and most did stay back in this country. 

My plan of going back to India was alive and well. I thought that wouldn’t it be nice if I could get a job in an American company, work for a few years, and then take a transfer to India. The job in India would be assured, and maybe I would have a leg up. The two biggest American companies operating in India in the mid-seventies were IBM and Union Carbide. The then Prime Minster, Indira Gandhi, had put some onerous conditions to IBM; they found those as unacceptable and chose to leave India. That left Union Carbide as the only major American company. As luck would have it, I got a job at the Union Carbide Technical Center in Charleston, West Virginia.

In the meantime, I had gone to India and got married, and we were living a good life in America. I liked the job at Union Carbide, and they liked me. But I had not forgotten my promise of going back to India. So, after a few years of working, I told my boss, Ron, that I would like to go back to India, and would be grateful if the company could arrange for a transfer to its Indian subsidiary.

I was on very good terms with Ron. He said that he would be sorry to lose me, but certainly wouldn’t let the company lose me. I was indeed flattered. In quick succession, he talked with his boss, John, who exchanged letters with the Union Carbide head in Delhi, Jim, who promptly agreed to find a position for me at their Chemical Division in Bombay (now Mumbai).

I was simply elated. It felt like the Lucky Star was indeed shining on me. As it happened, the head of the Bombay Chemical Division, Couvaras, was coming to Charleston in a few days, and Ron arranged for a meeting with him.

The meeting was very brief and cordial. We talked about India, he told me the position and salary he had in mind. I also learnt that my future boss, Mr. Ramaswamy, a senior level manager, was coming to Charleston, and Couvaras would ask him to meet me. Another senior manager from Bombay, Mr. Dutta, also came on a business trip. He loved classical music and high-end stereos. He stayed with us for a few days, enjoyed the Bengali food, and asked me to bring some high-end stereo components when I relocate in India.

Looked like the path has been set, and all my dreams were coming true. As planned, I reached Calcutta and contacted the Bombay office. Couvaras asked me to come to Bombay. I flew over and stayed at Mr. Dutta’s company flat on Marine Drive. What a beautiful view. I was given a hint that when I join, I would also be eligible for a company flat.

The next day I went to Union Carbide office at Nariman Point. First, I met Ramaswamy, who did not have much to say, and took me to Couvaras’ office. His was a huge office overlooking the Arabian Sea. Couvaras was behind a very large desk, somewhat stiff, and did not seem like the person I had met in Charleston. And almost immediately after we entered, Couvaras asked Ramaswamy to leave. As soon as he left, Couvaras was back to his old self, leaned over the desk, and started chatting about our Technical Center in Charleston.

I knew that he was from the same department as me. He kept enquiring about our colleagues in Charleston – how was Bob, how was Jim, and so forth. He talked briefly about his life in Bombay. What I could gather was that he was not a happy camper. He had spent three years in India as a career move. His social life was limited to Bombay Gymkhana and partying with senior managers and other expatriates of western companies. He was looking forward to going back to America in three months.

His only comment was “Asok, in three years, I have brought in nine engineers, and all of them except one have gone back”. I replied, “I will be your second one”. He did not say anything. I did not know whether he believed me, but I sincerely meant it.

He said that he would put me in a project that was coming up in Chembur, a Bombay suburb. The design work was complete, and they were waiting for a final approval from the state government. It should be coming in a couple of months, and I could join then.

After a pause, Couvaras said that he had another idea. There was another project coming up in Bhopal, and I could join there for now. Before I could say anything, he almost murmured to himself, “No, you have come from US, you won’t like Bhopal. Why don’t you wait a couple of months, and we will get you to Chembur?” Seemed like a good idea.

I also had no hesitation in telling him that I had a standing offer from the company that I worked for before going to USA, and I could join them, and wait till the approval came. He thought it was a good idea.

Well, the wait turned out to be long, very long.  I joined at the plant of my old employer. I was given a very warm welcome by all, including the Managing Director. In a private meeting in his room, he said that he had been to America and was very impressed with their efficiency and modern management techniques, and he would like to apply those techniques in his plant.

I was very encouraged that this interim arrangement had worked out so well. Then came the first stumbling block. I soon realized that “applying those modern techniques” was just a big talk. Everybody seemed amiable to each of my proposals, but when the time came for execution, their vested interests showed up. Many had connections to the top or near the top, and often those connections were based on ethnicity and, I realized later, money.

I was getting frustrated, but I still had hopes with Union Carbide. My best connection was Mr. Dutta. I had frequent contacts with him. He told me that the approval had come, but soon thereafter the state government fell on a no-confidence vote, and the new government had asked for a new submission. That was India in the mid-seventies, and the mood in the country was very much against big multinational corporations. I was asked to wait a little longer. So, I waited.

After three months, Mr. Dutta told me that Couvaras had gone back to USA.

I was becoming restless. My only respite was that I had a few bright young engineers reporting to me, and they worked very hard. One of the key issues was the very high quantities of scrap materials. If these could be reduced, the company would save a lot of money. I threw in the challenge to my engineers, and they indeed came up with ideas that would reduce the scrap by half. Somehow management did not like the idea, I didn’t know why.

A few days later, a gentleman whom we all called Mr. G came to my office. We all knew that he was a favorite of the big bosses. He asked me, “What are you doing?”

I didn’t understand, “About what?”

He explained “About scrap”.

I told him in an excited voice, “Isn’t that nice, our boys have been able to reduce the scrap materials by half?”

He told me in a cool voice, “You don’t understand. All those scraps are recycled by a third party and sold in open market or back to the company, and what is shown as loss actually goes into some coffer”.

Before going, he put his hand on my shoulder and said, “You have been trained in America, but this is India”.

I sat stunned. My engineers have worked round the clock to collect data and came up with really good solutions. They were so proud, so was I, and all for nothing.

After a few days, the Treasurer of the company called me and said that the auditors had just completed the annual audit. And there was a note on scrap materials that these could not be below a certain percentage due to the manufacturing process. The percentage figure had to be vetted by a third party, meaning me. I told him that I would get back to him.

I was in a quandary about what to do. The person who was in my position before me was also from my college -- a few years senior to me. We used to call him Banerjee. I went to his office, closed the door, and asked him, “What is this?”

Banerjee smiled and said, “They want you to sign, and if you don’t sign, they will find somebody who will”. Then after a pause, he almost repeated what Mr. G had said, “Asok, this is India. Love it or leave it”.

Love it or leave it – those words kept ringing in my ears. 

There was still no word from Union Carbide. Since they were not coming through, I had applied to a few companies. A couple of good offers came, but I felt that I would be going through the same frustrations

In the meantime, the political situation in Delhi was going through a huge turmoil. The government of Morarji Desai had fallen after about 16 months in office. His Deputy, Charan Singh, was trying to form a government by buying the elected Members of Parliament (MP). Many MP’s had put themselves in the auction block, and they would align with whoever was the highest bidder. We were getting messages through rumor mills that this MP had been offered so many lakhs of rupees (a huge sum in those days), and then got a counteroffer of so many more lakhs. What a shameful episode, and the whole country was glued to the rumors. Charan Singh eventually formed a government that lasted only 23 days.

I was heartbroken. This is not the country I came to serve. I came with a young man’s idealistic mindset, and now the realities of India were settling in. I called Mr. Dutta. He said that the state approval still had not come in, and with the current political situation, nobody knew what would happen. He gave me another news: my could-be boss, Ramaswamy, always had another person in mind for the position for which Couvaras had selected me. The position was still open, Couvaras was gone, and if I wanted, I could contact my boss in US to see if they were willing to write to Jim in Delhi office.

I did write to my boss in US, this time to ask if I could come back and join the company. The answer was swift – he would be very happy to get me back and set the paperwork in motion.

*** *** ***

I could not keep my promise to myself. I was young, and I asked myself a simple question: “I have 30-35 years of working life ahead of me, and is this the daily drudgery that I want to go through?”

When I looked around, I could see that people, in their daily lives, had to make so many compromises with themselves. Is this what I wanted to do?

Do I want the rest of my life to be in the middle of this – where the rulers are ready to go to bed with whoever pays the highest, and the rest of us watch in utter helplessness. Fortunately, I had another option, unlike many others, and I chose to avail myself of that.

Banerjee’s words, “Love it or Leave it” kept ringing in my ears. I love being an Indian; I love being a Bengali. I love our literature, our music, our proud history, and the cultural heritage. I found peace in Tagore’s songs, I cried with Sarbajaya and Apu, and laughed at Sukumar Roy’s “হুঁকো মুখো হ্যাংলা” (sorry, no English translation possible). I wanted my children to experience the same emotions and the same pride. But I could not, I could not live with my dislikes as a daily routine. So, for me, it had to be Love it, but Leave it”. I Love, but I Leave.

I will always consider India as my motherland. This is where I was born, this is where I was nurtured in my early years. The love and the characteristics of Bengal will always remain in my blood wherever I am. Like a child’s umbilical cord with mother severed at birth but connected for life through some invisible means, my connection with my motherland will always be there, whatever the distance. But America, like a father, had provided me what I needed for a meaningful life. This is where I would make my career and raise my family.

So, India will always remain my
Motherland, and America my Fatherland.

(Posted December 1, 2019)

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Comments received on December 17, 2019 from Tapas M:

"I was delighted to read 'Motherland and Fatherland' by Ask Baral.
What a story
Of gory and glory
Of Fatherland,
Of Motherland !
Corruption versus honesty
Make a travesty
Of dedicated trusts
Of young enthusiasts.
We are all pulled asunder --
Memories hit us like thunder --
Can't decide between Father and Mother,
To God, ultimately, we surrender."


Motherland and Fatherland

Asok Baral