Immigrant Bengalis

The Other World

Basab Dasgupta

It was sometime around the mid-nineties, not too long after my divorce.  I had devoted almost all of my time and energy to my job at Sony as a Director of Component Operation in San Diego.  I was not quite emotionally ready to enter the dating scene and at the same time avoided the familiar local Bengali social circle.  So, it was a pleasant surprise when I received a phone call one afternoon from Robi, one of my old Bengali friends from Milwaukee, who was a medical doctor.  He had reportedly become very wealthy, not only from his medical practice but also from some very astute investments in medical buildings and equipment manufacturing companies.

He was in town to attend a medical conference and was going to dinner with another doctor friend, Paul, in a restaurant called "Mille Fleurs" in the prestigious Rancho Santa Fe (RSF) area of the San Diego county and invited me to join them for dinner. 

“Do not hesitate or feel any obligation,” Robi assured me. “I am not going to pay for the dinner. Mr. Finkbeiner, who is a close friend of Paul and a long-time resident of RSF, would be hosting the event. He is filthy rich, and this is what he does with friends almost every other day.”  Actually, I did not have any hesitation at all because I saw this as an opportunity for some social interaction as well as an evening when I did not have to worry about what to cook and what to eat.
The venue provided additional intrigue.  I had driven through RSF many times before but never stopped anywhere there to go into a shop to buy anything or to have a cup of coffee. It is a very exclusive neighborhood.  The location is idyllic, about half-way between the Pacific Ocean to the west and mountains of Rancho Bernardo and Escondido to the east; climate is almost perfect year-around.  There is no shopping plaza, gas station, fast food joint, repair shop, etc. anywhere in sight.  There are two main roads through the town; both are two-lane rural highways and quite winding and hilly.  Considering how dry the San Diego area is, the surrounding terrain is surprisingly lush, and one could see various palm trees, smell eucalyptus trees and discover various species of exotic plants. Occasionally you would see golf courses and local residents out for a ride on horseback.  

I could never see any houses because they all sat way behind the main road on sprawling acreage and rows of big shady trees and various plants gave the owners complete privacy.  I had heard that people like Bill Gates, Janet Jackson, Andre Agassi, Jenny Craig, the singer Jewel, NFL and MLB players and many other famous people owned homes there - a second home if not the primary residence.  The place was discovered and developed by Douglas Fairbanks as a sanctuary where he and his Hollywood buddies could come and hang out away from the hustle and bustle of Hollywood whenever they wanted.  Surprisingly, there is a public bus route through the neighborhood which I later realized was meant to transport the maids and housekeepers for the homes.  I was excited that now I would be able to meet a real resident of RSF!
I left work and headed straight to the oceanfront Torrey Pines Hilton where Robi was staying; the three of us left in Paul's rental car for RSF shortly thereafter.  The restaurant was obviously a French restaurant -- judging by the name "Mille Fleurs," which means "thousand flowers" as I later learned -- and located in the center of town.  It would be a misnomer to call RSF a town; a "village" is more appropriate. The streets serve as showrooms for expensive cars.  It seemed that one had to, at least, own a Mercedes Benz as an entry permit to park in town, and it only went up from there: Maserati, Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Ferrari, Austin-Martin, Lamborghini - you name it.

The restaurant was rather small but very cozy, with the dining area on one side and a dimly lit piano bar on the other side of the main entrance.  I encountered my first hurdle as soon as we stepped across the threshold of the entrance; apparently, I would not be allowed to enter because I did not have a jacket on, although I had a tie.  Robi and Paul had their jackets.  I had rushed to meet them directly from work without giving much thought about my attire, and had forgotten to stop by my home, which was on the way, to pick up my jacket.  Fortunately, the concierge was prepared for misfits like me.  He took me aside into a small room full of jackets that he could lend me for the evening.  At first, I was apprehensive that none of them would fit my small stature, but I got lucky and found one that I really liked.  It was a navy-blue blazer with some expensive-looking designer logo embroidered on it.  It was a little large but it made me look bigger!  “You look handsome,” the concierge complimented, probably expecting a tip.
Paul's friend, Charles Finkbeiner (not his real name), was already seated and he waved at us.  He was an elderly gentleman, probably in his early sixties, with all gray hair.  One quick look at him and you could tell that everything he was wearing, from his diamond clustered Rolex watch to the ensemble of designer clothes to cologne, all spelled and smelled money.  He appeared to be very friendly and talkative; in fact, he was the main speaker throughout the rest of the evening.  I was introduced as a friend of Robi who lived in the "area".  Paul did not elaborate that by area, he did not mean RSF.

I do not remember the details of all the conversation except one comment that told me how wealthy the man was.  Charles said, almost nonchalantly, that he recently sold the small TV station he used to own.  “I had purchased it many years ago for eight million dollars and was able to sell it for sixty million” was his summary of the deal!  I immediately realized that he was the richest man I ever had dinner with.  Since I worked in the TV industry, I also had some selfish thoughts about using his connections for personal gain.

At one point, Paul asked him if he was still seeing both women - the blonde and the brunette - or if he had made up his mind in favor of one or the other.  Charles smiled and said "Yes, they are both around, but I am definitely leaning towards the brunette.  In Southern California the blondes are not that big a deal; as they say here, if you are not born blonde, you dye blonde".
Charles recommended that we order Ostrich meat as the main course. Of course, I had never tasted Ostrich meat, but I had a very open mind about food. I could eat anything that did not move. I remember disappointing my host in Korea during a business trip by refusing to try a special dish ordered for me -- supposedly a real delicacy: raw and live baby octopi which were still wiggling on the dinner plate! Near the end of dinner, the octopi were not moving anymore.  One of the Korean guys joked, "Perhaps you can eat them now because they are not moving."

Ostrich meat actually turned out to be quite tasty -- kind of like beef but much more tender and nothing like turkey meat.  I had taken a quick look at the Menu prices; our entrée was $35.  This was twenty-four years ago, and I am sure that it is probably twice as expensive now.  It remained as the priciest entrée I ever ate in USA.  (I had a more expensive entrée while dining in Tokyo, at company expense of course).  The accompanying red wine was also exquisite, but I do not remember exactly what it was or how much it cost.

I was pleased to see that Charles took some interest in me when he learned that I worked at Sony.  Sony was a big name not just in making television sets but also in making broadcast equipment for TV stations.  The entire TV industry was in the process of making a major transition from analog to digital transmission and we talked a little bit about it.  In fact, Charles indicated that this was one of the reasons for him to sell his TV station.  He did not want to spend a fortune on upgrading all the transmission equipment to their digital versions without really knowing how the so-called improvement in picture quality would impact his business.
 We retired to the piano bar after the rather sumptuous meal for a round of after-dinner liqueur.  The piano man was playing Van Morrison's "Moon dance."  The food, the wine, the surroundings -- I must confess that I was starting to feel a little bit like a wealthy RSF man.  As part of that metamorphosis, I was also feeling a little romantic.  I looked around the bar.  I spotted a woman making eye contact with me.  She was clearly at least fifteen to twenty years older than me, but still reasonably attractive.  I was sure that cosmetic surgery had a lot to do with it.  It seemed that she was there by herself, sitting in a corner of the room.

I gathered enough courage to walk over to her, sit next to her and start up a conversation.  I was confident that I looked good and respectable in that navy-blue blazer with a designer logo I had borrowed from the restaurant.  She did not waste time to let me know that she was a widow.  "Do you live around here?" I was curious.  "No", she said "I live in Beverly Hills where my main home is, but I also have a home here in RSF where I come to spend occasional weekends and holidays".  "Wow", I thought "she owned not one but two multi-million-dollar homes".  Also, she did not appear to be the working type; the houses must had been paid off.  Her husband was probably a very wealthy man and left her a sizable fortune.

It was funny but I started to think in the same way most single women think when they meet very wealthy but much older men.  I thought, if I could latch onto this woman in some way life could become so easy.  I was sure that I could make her happy, by being her much younger social companion on various occasions, if nothing else.  The possibility of traveling all over the world crossed my mind.  If it evolved to the point of living in Beverly Hills, that would be a move to another world.  I continued in a conversation with her about some meaningless subjects such as weather, horse race at Del Mar (a community right next to RSF) and Douglas Fairbanks.

At one point she asked me in a somewhat inquisitive way "Tell me, what do you do?"  I answered almost without thinking "I work at Sony".  Perhaps subconsciously I was thinking that since the Sony name got some attention from Charles, it might impress this woman as well.  I was shocked to see the change in her demeanor.  She looked away from me, did not say a single additional word and pretended to be absorbed in listening to the music.  She absolutely had no more interest in me.  She had probably not even imagined that a foreign national like me could have afforded the luxury of having a dinner and a relaxing evening in this restaurant on a weekday night.  I realized the mistake I had made.  I should have answered "I own Sony!"  She had zero interest in a mere salary man working five days a week to earn a living.

Paul brought me back to my car and to my world. I was happy to return to my world -- my Oldsmobile, my job as a "big shot salary man" at Sony, my favorite restaurants "El Torito" and "Red Lobster," my modest house in Escondido and my office outfit purchased from J. C. Penney. I knew I would never be able to enter the other world I just got a glimpse of. I was not sure if I even wanted to because it seemed so cold, superficial and everything revolved around money.

(Posted February 1, 2020)

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​Comments received from Tapas M. on February 19, 2020: "Perhaps, a comparison may be drawn with a long-forgotten experience of mine -- in a very un-posh environment.
In mid-1990's it was.
I was a member of the Kettering City (Ohio) operated gym/rest & recreation center.  My wife was not a member.
I once ventured to attend their monthly get-together luncheon.  As I stepped into the hall, a group of three senior ladies sitting at a table, waved at me to come and sit by them -- there was an empty chair at the table for four.  Very eagerly, one of them asked me if I was a bachelor or a widower.  I said that neither, I was married.  Their faces fell.  "Is your wife here ?", was the next question.  I said, "No."  After a momentary pause, came the remark, "You know, you should not be here without your wife."  Then they unashamedly turned their faces away from me, and never spoke a word to me again.
Fortunately, the lunch was not bad.
This also showed that there was no prejudice against skin-color or people of foreign origin.  
A telling reminder
Of the system of two-by-two pathfinder,
That God has instituted upon us.
Otherwise, our society is lost.
Coming as an unwelcome ghost,
A single adult appears atrocious.

Here is the tale of another long-forgotten experience that had displayed deep depths of human honesty and human dissembling.
It was 1965 or 1966.  My wife (Uttara) and I had, separately, come over to this country within the past year or two.  I was a graduate student in Illinois.
The university had a large office meant only to serve and help foreign students.  This students' office arranged a day-outing for my wife and me, in a nearby city, with a very elderly widow (whom I will name, 'X") at her home.  The office had such programs those days to familiarize foreign students with their host country's hospitable culture.
And what a familiarization process this was !
The dear old, 'X', was a devout member of her church 'C'.  She planned a lovely lunch for my wife and me at her home, and had invited her 'dear Friend', 'Y', another senior widow, to give us company.
Time flew charmingly, until the following conversation ensued, between 'X' and 'Y'.  (Obviously, I do not remember the actual words.)
'X': I enjoyed such and such festivity in our church.  Did you enjoy it too ?
'Y': There was no such festivity in our church.
--------------------(altercations followed)------------------
'X': Yes, there was.  I can show you the calendar of activities of our church 'C'.
'Y': Oh, that explains it.  I am not a member of that church.  I am a member of church 'D'.
'X' (testily): I didn't know that. I thought you were a member of my church.  (After a moment) Then why are you here ?
'Y': I am here because you wanted me to be here.
'X' (now very angry, spitefully): I don't want you here.  You can go.
Remember, all this was going on in front of my wife and me.  I was sitting dumbfounded.  Very new to this country, I did not quite grasp the significance of what was unfolding before my eyes.  Thankfully, 'Y' did not leave at once in a huff, being clearly a very sensible person.
Immediately, after that, our hostess turned her attention toward us, full of charm and motherly love.
I surmise all this happened after lunch, although I do not quite recollect.
My recollection in this matter actually ends here.  But, all these came, after a fabulous month of stay with a great and generous American farmer-family.  
Human dignity
Is a divine sanctity --
Not a personal property of church or state.
In it one must be divinely steeped,
Otherwise, the veil will be ripped
In a careless moment of hate."