Immigrant Bengalis

(Posted June 1, 2017)

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One of the most intriguing observations for me after I came to USA was how much attention the Americans paid to their pets. All the other aspects of American lifestyle and landscape – a seemingly infinite number of cars in all sizes, shapes and colors; wide multi-lane highways; tall buildings; supermarkets with plentiful grocery items; dazzling shopping malls; etc. were all very impressive, but I expected to see those things. The number and variety of pets was a total surprise. It also seems to me that this love for animals has only been increasing with time in this society.

I never had a pet in my life when I grew up in India. I always thought of them as a totally unnecessary burden and a potential source of emotional trauma if and when they fell sick or died. Of course, there were always some neighborhood street dogs ("neri kutta") and alley cats scavenging our trash after the meals. Typically, they were not very healthy looking nor very clean. I always cringed if I came in close proximity with one. A few relatively wealthy people in the neighborhood had dogs – typically Alsatian or Poodle; cats were more common, but I never paid any attention to them. So I had no reason to change when I came here. My somewhat inappropriate humor to my American friends has been the line "the only kind of pet I like are the Penthouse Pets".

I was awed that almost all grocery stores had separate aisles dedicated to cat and dog food. More recently, nationwide large chain stores, such as "PET SMART" and "PETCO" which are totally dedicated to pet related items, have emerged. A wide variety of pet paraphernalia is available including pet enclosures, leashes, toys etc. Different brands of pet foods compete against each other through expensive TV advertisements. There are veterinarians and "pet hospitals" in every neighborhood. It costs quite a bit of money to take your pet to a vet – anywhere form $100 to several hundred dollars depending on the ailment. Some insurance companies even offer medical insurance for pets. There are facilities for pet grooming where pets are given bath, with shampooing and trimming of their fur, and "pet hotels" or kennels where you can leave your pet when you go on vacation.

The variety of breeds for both cats and dogs is almost as wide as automobiles. They come in various sizes, shapes and colors. The price of these pets was also quite shocking to me, ranging from a few hundred dollars to several thousand dollars.

Then there are routine chores associated with having a pet. Apart from feeding and cleaning them, one has to provide cat litter boxes for cats and take dogs for "walks" for their bathroom habits. Any misdeed on carpet or couch can be quite a mess. The pets also pose a dilemma if you are going for a day or two to visit a friend or a relative. I estimate that it can easily cost a person a couple of hundred dollars every month to make sure that pets are well taken care of.

I would say that almost every other American family that I meet owns a pet; either a dog or cat, and in many cases both. Curiously, I have NEVER seen a pet in the house of any Indian family that I have visited. What is the reason for this difference and should we, the immigrant Bengalis, even bother to think about this social phenomenon? Well, I did and here are my thoughts.

I feel that this love of pets is primarily a somewhat sad commentary on the loneliness of the people in this society resulting from their fierce individualistic lifestyle. The loneliness is present among single people who either have never been married or are divorced or widowed and living by themselves; couples living together but not committed to marriage or having children; older "empty-nesters" whose grown up children have left home to pursue their own lives; and even among married people seeking unconditional love they do not get from their spouses or other family members. Of course, many families acquire pets to provide company and entertainment for their young children; but even in those cases it is meant as a substitute for paternal attention and company, i.e., to address the loneliness of the kids!

In addition to providing company, the pets also serve as "showpiece" items that one can brag about, just like one's car or TV set – a symbol of the materialistic society.  There are even pet shows and contests to demonstrate these prize possessions. Expensive breeds are symbols of affluence. However, there are some more justifiable reasons for having pets, especially dogs. The larger and more ferocious dogs can be security guards against unwanted intruders. The blind folks often depend entirely on dogs for their outings outside the home. Breeding pets can be a big dollar business.

The Bengalis typically do not suffer from such loneliness because of their family-oriented culture and considerably fewer cases of divorce or of unwed couples living together. We are also very conservative when it comes to spending money and spending large amounts of money on pets seems like a total waste to us. In addition, there is an unspoken mindset that, if we were to spend this kind of money on someone other than ourselves, why not spend them on all the poor and starving people in India or on some cultural/religious cause.

However, I believe that there are reasons for us to try to feel comfortable with this pet addiction if we were to get assimilated into this society, even to a limited degree. If we want to strongly interact with American people in social settings with the goal of establishing a good friendship with another family, we should develop a certain degree of fondness and understanding of pets. When you would visit them, chances are that their pets would try to be very friendly with you. You should not avoid the encounter because that immediately reveals your image as someone who does not love animals and perhaps, by extrapolation, people as well. So you must at least, pretend to like the pet, caress it and even better, hold it in your arms, perhaps even saying a few words to it. Chances are that, once the pet recognizes you as a friendly person, it would not continuously bother you.

You have to participate, if not initiate, some conversations around the pets. This is where knowledge of pets becomes handy. You can ask about the pet’s breed, age, daily activities, food habits; comment about its "cuteness" and friendly behavior. It is even better if you can relate to that particular breed in some way; for example, by saying that "oh, my aunt had a very similar dog". You should be able to answer questions like why you do not have a pet, or more generally, why Indians do not seem to like pets. The more difficult part of this interaction is what to do if your friends visit you with their cat or dog. Clearly, it would be rude not to allow the pets into the house, but you definitely do not want them to run around all over the house, no matter what assurance their owners gave you about them being "well-behaved". The best way is probably to leash them in some confined area, such as the patio or even kitchen.

A similar situation arises even more intensely if and when a single Bengali person, who is either divorced or have never been married, starts dating an American of the opposite sex. Once again, the chances are that not only he/she would have pets, but being single, extremely fond of the pet. So the pet might accompany the couple on an outing to a park or a shopping mall or even a restaurant. One must be prepared for the pet's visit. It is not just talking about pets, but one might have to get engaged in activities involving the pet, such as taking it to the vet or buying cat or dog food or walking a dog. Many women sleep at night with their pet in bed. That may also offer some new challenges.

A third scenario where we encounter the pet issue is when we try to rent out an investment property, be it a condo or a house. If your rental ad says "no pets allowed", then it would definitely cut down your potential client base by 50%. Also, make no mistake, the pets will cause some damage to the house, such as peeing on the carpet, scratching various surfaces and generating that unmistakable pet smell. In order to be prepared for the necessary repair of such damages, it is clearly desirable that you know enough about the breed of pets your renters have so that you can compensate for your extra expense either by charging more rent and/or asking for a higher security deposit.

While we, the first-generation immigrants, may not be very fond of the idea of having pets, it is quite conceivable that our children and grand-children who are born and brought up in this country may want a pet. If you are ready to give in and buy a pet from a pet store or get one from a pound for them as a gift, you have got to know what you are getting into, both in terms of routine maintenance and special issues concerning a particular breed.

Finally, if you are a very creative person, a thorough knowledge of pets can be useful to expand your creativity. For example, if you are a fashion designer, some Bollywood style dress for a cat might become an instant hit. If you are an architect, you can include a "pet's quarter" in the design of a house or a "dog run" in the backyard in an aesthetically pleasing way. If you are an artist or a sculptor, unusual paintings and/or sculptures of the pets can become a major draw.

I will conclude by narrating a personal experience. My live-in girlfriend Sally loves all kinds of animals -- from mice to elephants. One day, several years ago, she brought home a cat – a very cute one of "Himalayan" breed with a smashed face. She looked like the cat named "Jynxie" in the movie "Meet the Parents". After expressing my initial displeasure at her for making such a major decision without any consultation with me, I started to adjust myself to the idea of a peaceful coexistence with the cat. There was an incredible mixture of helplessness, vulnerability, innocence and loyalty in her face that eventually won my heart. I was surprised that, even at this old age and not having a pet all my life, I was able to bond with this little animal. I considered it as a healthy emotional growth on my part. We named our cat "Scarlet" as in "frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn" about her.

Yes, there has been occasional minor mishaps, but I found out that there are all kinds of remedies available to address those problems. There has been an incident of the cat slipping out of the house and causing us to go through a desperate search of the neighborhood. It is always a challenge to find a "sitter" when we go out of town for an extended period. We had to take her to the doctor a couple of times a year and spend big bucks; but overall, I would say that it has been a very positive experience. The added bonus is when my daughter and grandkids visit, the cat is a major source of entertainment.

I also try to convince myself about the good "karma" about the experience in a spiritual sense by remembering the famous line by Swami Vivekananda: "Jeebe prem kore jei jon, sei jon sebichhe Ishwar" (the one who loves animals is serving God").



Basab Dasgupta