Immigrant Bengalis

 My Munna Speaks Fluent English


Satya Jeet 

By the time I left my job in Maryland, I was convinced that the stories I shared with my guests at the motel were worth putting to paper. My nine-year-old son, Raphael said, “Daddy, people came back to the motel to hear your stories and they rented a room. You were the motel!”

It is one thing to sit around a fireplace and entertain a few people in a motel lobby and quite another to commit, even a few lines of literary material to paper. Like most Bengali immigrants of my generation, I was trained in science and technology. Literature was a passing fancy of our youth; I had a long way to go.

All successful writers will advise you, “writing starts with reading”. As I wanted to write, I had to immerse myself totally in my renewed passion for literature. I put the two and two together. What better way to read books than to sit behind a desk at a small motel in the middle of nowhere? I packed up my bags, hoped on the bus and landed at a small motel in rural Connecticut

Hardly anything happened at this Quality Inn. Thankfully, Amazon delivered the books I ordered and on some occasions, delivered them instantly to my Kindle Fire. I was left in peace to soak in the books and when the mood struck, to hammer away a few lines on my Mac. All this luxury ….. and I was still making a little money on the side.

The clientele at the motel was mostly the geriatric crowd. Their activities in the motel could be summed up by noting, grandparents came to visit, had dinner with the grandchildren then came back by nine to retire to their rooms. There were a few Sunday lunches too and that outing followed the same sleepy pattern.

Indians as a general rule do not stay in motels when they visit with their relatives. As such, I was very excited to see the name, Lily Kumaramangalam on the arrival list. My Bengali antenna went up. “Modro” I sang out aloud and stole a sneaky smile.

A couple of truck drivers checked in to the motel that afternoon. Then the IT woman came in and her credit card bounced. She was mad as hell. She was followed by a traveling salesman from the South with Bourbon on his breath. He was followed by a smartly uniformed Marine, standing ram rod straight and at attention at the front desk.

I checked her ID. She was Corporal Lily Kumaramangalam! Her eyes were as blue as robin’s eggs and her hair was soaked in the light of the morning sun. I handed her the registration form.

As she signed on the paper I noticed her short, thick fingers and nails, bitten off by their nervous owner. She was of rural stock from somewhere in New England for sure. Lily did not even raise an eyebrow in recognition of my Indian ancestry. I gathered this was not be the best time to ask about Mr. Kumaramangalam.

The maple and ash had shed their pollen the previous week. This morning, the hardy oaks had dropped their pollen and the few cars in the parking lot wore a mantle of green. Looking out through the large plate glass window in the lobby, I spied her head bobbing between two cars in the parking lot. Lily was cleaning the pollen off her car. They were ‘the few, the proud, the Marines’. It was just like Lily to wax her car to shine like the boots she wore and the brass on her belt and uniform.

The war in Afghanistan was still on. I walked up to Lily and wished her well and a safe return.

“Don’t worry about me. I will win either way.”

Her cryptic note peaked my curiosity.

“I am doing this for my daughter, you know. If I walk back home she will go to college on my GI benefits. If I come back in a pine box, Mama will stash the money away till Bernie gets ready for college.”

I was staggered by her courage. Not past her twenties, Lily was willing to bargain with death for the sake of her child’s future.

“You must be proud of Bernie,” I responded in a timid voice.

Lily was done cleaning and polishing her car. She slipped into the driver’s seat, adjusted the mirror and proceeded to put the finishing touches with her lip stick. In these few moments I had the time to re-think our conversation.  I regained my composure. “But are those the only options?” I asked forcefully.

Lily dropped the lip stick and stepped out of her shiny car.

“What else is there to do?” she barked back. “The Marines offered me an opportunity and I took it. I am on my way to Fort Lejeune. I will be trained as a demolition expert. I know it is a dangerous job and your ass can get blown to high heavens in a jiffy. We are potato farmers from the back woods. I want a better life for my daughter.”

She stared at me for my reaction. I had none. The air was still.

“I was very excited when I met him. He was not a ‘duh’ kind of guy. I could talk to him. Then Bernie came along, and he had to drop out of college. We went back to the farm.”

Lily looked down, bowed her head ever so little and nodded from side to side. “He knew everything about everything, but he just could not till the soil or pick the harvest.”

I could imagine Kumaramangalam, looking lost in the frozen fields of New England.

The pretty woman overtook the Marine. “At first I hated him for leaving us. It took me some time and many false starts to come to terms with the rejection. Six weeks in Parris Island can make you forget a lot of your troubles mister and make a new person out of you.”

It was a sunny morning of the spring,  yet I could feel summer, autumn and winter rolled into one.

“As Bernie came of age, I realized she had broken the mold.”

Lily paused to look at a sparrow, chirping on the hydrangea bush. When she looked at me again, she had agreed to recognize me and acknowledge my Indian ancestry. “She is smart as a whip, ….. just like her Daddy and she will go to Yale.”

I do hope Bernie makes it to Yale because in the back of my mind, I had another story.

Almost three hundred years ago, some long-forgotten ancestor of Mr. Kumaramangalam had toiled as a peasant on the Madras Presidency when Elihu Yale was the governor. He amassed a substantial fortune of the backs of the peasants and sent a sizable gift to the New England colonies. His gift allowed the Collegiate College to be renamed Yale College and establish itself as a major institution of learning. This was pay-back time! In a larger historic cycle, Mr. Kumaramangalam will extract his fair share of that immense fortune amassed by Elihu Yale. His daughter was born in the new world. By attending Yale University, Bernie will benefit from the immense wealth her great grandfathers had worked so hard to create!

First it was the marines, then the cavalry came. I was awoken one morning with the sound of ‘neighs’ and ‘whoas’ filling the air. I ran to the window to see pick-ups pulling horse-trailers driving into our parking lot. Soon they were followed by late model Beamers, Benzes and Bentleys. The children of the rich were coming in for the equestrian meets at the local horse farms. For a week, we were inundated with young prima donnas, their nannies and grooms. No, they did not eat our humble breakfast offerings. A catering service brought in fine food for these fine young ladies.

Then there was the Chinese invasion. As high school graduation approached, families from Beijing came to attend the graduation of their children. The mothers made quick trips in limos to the city. The label of the shopping bags the mothers brought back from Manhattan read Tiffany’s, Bergdorf Goodman, Prada. This was the elite of the Chinese Communist Party. The children of Mao had come a long way! The grandchildren were graduating from exclusive private schools like Choate Rosemary Hall. A quarter century from now, these boys and girls in turn will be members of the Communist  Party’s Inner Circle. Behold the new people’s revolution to come!

Flower shows and wine tasting festivals followed. The summer passed quickly, and I have to admit it was a lot of fun. On the night of Halloween, as I was about to close shop, two trick-or-treaters covered in bed sheets and wearing ghost masks rang the front door bell. Tired but still in a good mood, I buzzed them in.

I reached down to the basket of treats I had kept for the children and brought up a handful of candy. As I reached over the counter to give away the candy, the trick-or-treater pulled out a gun out from under the sheet that covered him and pointed it to my face. He motioned for me to move away.

I raised my arms above my head and moved away. In a flash, the trick-or-treater emptied the cash drawer and ran towards the exit. His buddy still stood by the front desk staring at me through his mask. The blood rushed to my head.

I opened the side drawer, slid my hand in and shouted fiercely, “Don’t make me do something we’ll both regret.”

Fearing that I would pull out a gun and shoot him, he too ran to join his buddy and they both disappeared into the night.

It was not a large amount of money that we were robbed of. It was not the money that I missed. I felt totally violated! For those few minutes of the hold-up, another person had total and evil control over my life. My self-confidence must have hit rock bottom.

As I discussed the robbery with the owners of the motel over the next few days I started to see another side of the story that I had never imagined possible. The Patels are Vaishnavas and ‘pacifists’. With their immigration to the US in the 70s and 80s, they moved into the less desirable real estate in American cities. They opened businesses with the knowledge that they would face the gun. They never fought back but kept their head and continued their business and prospered. Over time they moved away to more desirable grounds but in the process they had brought about growth and transformation into the run-down areas of American cities. That change is part of the Patel motel legacy!

The summer season had come to an end, but the property had to be kept up through the winter. I looked at our small swimming pool and saw that the water was turning green. Algae had grown and covered the pool. Fortunately, it was an easy fix and a pool supplier sent over drums of chlorine.

Next morning, I saw Hari Bhai, our house-keeper and my Man Friday carrying the drums of chlorine to the pool. As Hari Bhai was about to pour the highly corrosive liquid into the pool, I noticed he was not wearing safety glasses! The splatter from the pool, if it went into his eyes could blind him!

“Stop, Hari Bhai, stop,” I shouted from the front desk and ran towards him. He put the drum of chlorine aside and stared back at me, shocked and speechless.

I went to the tool room and came back with a pair of safety glasses for him. “Here, put these on.”

Hari Bhai toyed with the glasses in his hand but continued to stare at me. I felt awkward not knowing what he was trying to communicate. Perhaps I had been too severe in shouting at him, but his safety and protection was important to me.

He leaned forward and said softly, “Payhli vaar, koiya mari karji leedhi.” (For the first time someone has cared for me.)

“What?” I asked.

He cried out aloud, “Payhli vaar, koiya mari karji leedhi.”

I was aghast at his statement. Tears rolled down his eyes. Hari Bhai wailed, “koiya mari karji leedhi.”

Yashoda Ben came running form the laundry room and put her arms around her husband. They crouched on the ground together and sobbed, “Payhli vaar, koiya mari karji leedhi.”

It was not a cry in response to a moment’s trauma that passes like a late summer squall. This was a storm held back over decades, perhaps a lifetime that was let loose.

The father of the nation had called them ‘Children of God’ but their life did not reflect that place of honor. When Hari Bhai was seven, his father took him along to collect the night soil from the Malik’s house. A skinny lad, young Hari had to struggle to balance the heavy earthen pot with human excrement on his head and carry it to the village dump. He was proud of his achievement because he knew it pleased his father. The father and son became a team and business thrived . They got more pots of human excrement to carry on their heads.

One afternoon his father stepped on a piece of sharp metal at the dump. Soon he developed a fever. Hari Bhai, by now a lad of eleven was strong enough to carry the load meant for him and his father.

The fever did not go away. It became worse.

Late one evening, Hari Bhai noticed that his father’s body had started to swell.  The fever raged on. He was in excruciating pain.

Hari Bhai ran to the landlord’s house and stood outside his gate. “Malik Saheb, please send the doctor with the needle to my father,” he begged, “please.”

The doctor never came. His body turned green as the gangrene spread though his body. Writhing in pain, crying out aloud, Hari Bhai’s father passed away.

No Brahmin set foot in their hut to give Hari Bhai’s father the last rites or consecrate his body. As is the custom in their cast, they placed the body in an upright position on a bier. They beat on drums, blew on horns and danced their way to the cremation grounds.

As Hari Bhai walked by his father’s bier, he knew that the ‘needle’ would have saved his father’s life. He wanted to cry but held back those tears. Hari Bhai had learnt the hard lesson of his life, ‘No one cared for them’.

We immigrant Bengalis in the US had our battles fought for us many decades ago. We are the beneficiaries of Ram Mohan Roy, Vidyasagar, Rabindranath and Vivekananda’s message for modernity. The Ram Krishna Mission, Bharat Sevashram Sangha, and the local Ananda Mandir are open to all. We immigrants Bengali take this privilege as a matter of fact.

My father, Santi Ranjan was the first immigrant Bengali in our family. In 1945, he joined the laboratory of Professor Herman Marx as a graduate student to study a new field called Polymer Chemistry. Stanford conferred a Ph. D. on him. The following year he joined Professor McBain at the Brooklyn Polytechnic as a promising, immigrant Bengali scientist.

In August 1947, he received a letter from his Mastar-Moshai  back home. Santi Ranjan hopped on the street- car with his suitcase. He boarded the Queen Mary at the Brooklyn Navy Yard for his tryst with destiny.

Baba settled down to life of a humble academic person in Calcutta. Taking up the charge assigned to him by his Mastar-Moshai, he sat in the shade of a banyan tree by a pond in a village called Jadavpur and he guided his Ph. D students. He also supervised the construction of a building by the pond that became the permanent home of the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science. At the same time, with the meager savings he brought back from the United States, he built a modest home. At the first Durga Puja celebrations at his new home, he invited his Mastar-Moshai.

Mastar-Moshai did come to our home to attend the Puja celebration. He said, “I have come because Santi has invited me. I have not attended a puja in nearly fifty years.”

My parents were speechless. He continued. “When I was a child of five in our village of Shaoratoli, I went to the Zamindar’s house to attend the Saraswathi Puja that was being celebrated. I was not allowed to step into the Thakur Dalaan to offer Anjali to the Goddess of learning, as I am from the scheduled caste.”

My mother took me down from her lap and placed my head on Mastar-Moshai’s feet. I was told later when I came of age, Professor Megh Nath Saha leaned forward and placed his hand momentarily on my fore-head.

Standing by the swimming pool in rural Connecticut, I did not have the language to tell Hari Bhai that it was the blessing upon my head from a man just like him that had seen me through my darkest times. It is the blessing from that same ‘scheduled caste man’ that allows me to believe, there is light at the end of this tunnel.  

It was nearly sixty years since Hari Bhai had walked by the bier carrying his father. Each morning he woke up to the tortured memory of his father, writhing in pain, crying out aloud. He could not allow himself to cry, so he learnt very early in life to gulp down a shot of country liquor and to go to work.

Standing by the swimming pool in rural Connecticut Hari Bhai could not hold back his tears any longer. Finally, someone had cared for him, ….. for them!
Hari Bhai had toiled for over a decade, seven days a week. His only rest came when his daughter Sajal drove him and Yashoda Ben to her in-law’s house to sing the hymns to Lord Krishna, one evening a month. He met people there who were like him, the down-trodden people of their society.
An unforeseen change started to come over the little group. Back home they were loathed as chamars and gaandhis. In the United States they were respected as sanitation engineers, carpenters, brick layers, gardeners, plumbers. The new designation of ‘artisan’ brought about a sense of self-confidence among them. They pooled their resources and bought small run-down motels in run-down parts of town that they renovated and operated themselves.
The Swami Narayan Movement opened their arms to them. Hari Bhai and his friends found a larger purpose to their lives. Volunteering their personal services and donating large parts of their newly created wealth, they built the finest temples in the United States. One has to visit the Swami Narayan Temple at Robbinsville, New Jersey to see and feel the pride of the devotees.
Hari Bhai felt that the time had come to go home. He had left behind a son when he came to the United States. He had worked hard and saved enough money that would allow him to go home and acquire a small plot of land. He was a Patel, a patidar, a farmer. He longed to break the ground with a plow, his son by his side.
It was a long winter. Then the snow-bells made their shy appearance. The crocuses followed.

On a late winter morning,  Sajal drove up in a bright blue, middle-class Honda. Her little son opened the door, ran across the empty parking lot and jumped up into Hari Bhai’s open arms.

Hari Bhai carried him on his lap to me.

“Saheb na pranam koro.”

The child would not look at me and buried his face into Hari Bhai’s broad chest. “Maro Munna fuluent English bolachay,” Hari Bhai beamed.

I looked at the child and said, “Hi” but being shy of strangers, Munna did not respond. Pausing a few moments, I added, “Give me ‘Hi 5’, Buddy.”

Munna slowly turned his face around and peeked at me from the corner of his eyes. He smiled and raised his left arm and we did a ‘Hi 5’.

Watching Hari Bhai and Munna walk hand-in-hand across the parking lot, I took comfort in knowing that somewhere in a small town in Connecticut, when Miss Brooke or Miss Haley will ask, “Children, who can recite ABC for me this morning?” Munna’s hand will shoot up along with all the other children’s. He will be eager and without fear, inhibition or restraint, knowing he is equal among his equals.

(Posted June 1, 2019)

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