Immigrant Bengalis

          A squirrel darted across the front lawn, stopped near the rhododendron bushes, and picked up a nut with its front paws.  It sat up on its haunches,and nibbled busily on its tasty meal, its beady eyes darting around as it ate.  I stopped in the act of closing the front door behind me, and gazed at it.   I could feel my anxiety slowly ebb away.  This was a sight that never failed to enchant me.  I turned, opened the door and looked into the house.

            “Ma,” I called, “come look at this!”  And I felt the tiny wave of misgiving wash over me again.  My mother had not said anything to me earlier when I had told her that it was time for me to get back to work; but I had heard her unuttered reproach but I don’t want to be at home alone!  There’s nothing to do!  No one to talk to!  And the thought struck me now, as it had then, that what the elderly needed more than anything else was a live person to talk to – and nothing else could fill that need.

            My mother joined me on the porch and smiled when she saw the squirrel.  “Do you remember that time in Bombay when you brought home a squirrel and insisted on keeping it as a pet?  You kept it in a shoebox.  It ran away after a while.”

            “Ma, it was a chipmunk, not a squirrel.  Yes, I do remember!”

            “Oh, it was a chipmunk!  I wondered why these creatures looked different!  I’ve seen many squirrels over the past few days when you’ve been at work and I’ve sat out on the porch.”

            And never seen any people on the streets.  That’s what she told me when I came home from work on her first day in New Jersey.  In Ranaghat there’s never any dearth of people on the streets.  Even in Bombay, where things are not as relaxed as in West Bengal, one sees people on the streets!

            And sometimes, those people even stop and talk to you though they don’t know you, I had added brightly on that occasion.  I hadn’t known then how much she was going to miss Ranaghat.

            But now my mother was talking again, and the wistfulness in her tone caught at my heart.  “Even the animals in this country look different,” she said softly.

            I sighed inaudibly, and looked at my watch.  I started in panic when I saw the time.  I couldn’t be late again today.  “I’ve got to get back to work!”  I said in a higher tone than I meant to use.  “Don’t forget to lock the door when you go in,” and I rushed down the steps.  I didn’t wave goodbye.  I didn’t want to see the sadness in her face at the prospect of facing another afternoon all by herself.  And then, when I’d turned the corner and it was too late, I wished I’d waved goodbye.

            Sunday was a bright and cheerful day.  We ate a sumptuous breakfast of luchi and aloor tarkari.  I let the housework go, and just sat and talked with my mother.  Later in the morning, I changed into a sari, and my husband and I took my mother to the Bengali Club.  I’d been looking forward all week to talking her there.  I was sure that meeting other Bengalis would help lift her spirits.

            The first part of our visit went well.  I was relieved and happy to see my mother talking animatedly to many of my friends.  Then, later, as I walked up to where she was conversing earnestly with a group of people, I heard her say, “Do you know if anyone is traveling to India within the next two weeks or so?  I want to go home.”

            When we got back that night, I followed my mother into her room.  And the words spilled out of my mouth before I could think of what I was saying.  “It’s not fair to me or to you for you to be wanting to go back to India so soon,” I said.  “Have you forgotten everything we discussed after Baba died?  There’s no one to look after you in Ranaghat – and you’re at a stage of your life when you need to be with someone who can take care of you.  Oh Ma, don’t you see there’s no other way of doing things.  And have you forgotten everything we had to go through to get your green card?  I had to fill out pages and pages of paperwork.  And then you and I had to go to Bombay because we couldn’t get your green card at the consulate in Kolkata.”  I was trembling now.  But we’d been through so much in the past year – I had made several trips to India because my father had sickened, and then died, leaving my mother completely alone in India because I, their only child, lived in the US.

            My mother was equally passionate in listing all the things about Ranaghat that she missed.  We finished the argument about two hours later, not just drained of emotion, but also completely exhausted.  But I felt we had reached an unspoken truce.  We would take the days as they came, and not make any hasty decisions.

            The next two weeks went well.  I came home at lunchtime every day, and invariably found my mother sitting on the porch.  It still saddened me to see her sitting there all by herself, waiting for me to come home, but she seemed contented enough.

            Then, one evening when I returned home, I found her waiting for me at the front steps. 

            “Do you know Esther and George?” she asked as soon as she saw me.

            “Do I know – who?”

            “Esther and George!  They live in that house near the corner of this street.”

            I shook my head.  “I don’t think I’ve ever seen the people who live there.  As I’ve told you, I know my immediate neighbors.  I’ve introduced them to you.  But I don’t really know anyone else.”

            “That’s because they only go out of their house during the day when you’re at work!” said my mother triumphantly.  She was obviously taking childish pleasure in the fact that she knew one of my neighbors and I didn’t, and all at once, the thought pleased me as well.  “The husband’s old and doesn’t see well at night,” she went on.  “The wife’s younger than I am, and was doing fine till two years ago when she developed a heart condition.  So now she goes for a long walk every day, but late in the morning.  She doesn’t go out at night either.”

            “Tell me more about them,” I said, feeling absurdly happy.  My mother was beginning to take an interest in our neighbors!  I was about to sit down on one of the porch chairs when she pulled at my hand.

            “No!  You mustn’t sit down!  They said to bring you over to their house as soon as you returned.”  Her grip on my hand tightened.  And so we crossed the road, at once and hand in hand, my mother leading me along the way to Esther and George’s house.

           The next evening, whe n I came home from work, I, in turn, had a surprise in store for my mother.  It was a book and a brochure from our public library.  My mother had always loved to read, and I had brought a boxful of Bengali books back with us when she and I had returned to New Jersey.  But voracious reader that she was, she had finished all the books in the first two weeks.  I had then given her books written in English but she had refused to read them, saying that she wanted to read Bengali books only.  I now decided it was time to try again.

            Our local library had a Book Discussion group that met every month, and I hoped that my mother would join it.  Actually, I had broached the subject during her second week in New Jersey, but she had been adamant in her refusal.  She had reiterated that she wanted to read only books written in Bengali.  But now that she had made friends with Esther and George, I took her a Great Booksbrochure and a copy of the book that the group would be discussing next.

            But my mother refused to even look at the book.  “English is not a language that I enjoy reading,” she said.

            “But why not?”  I responded heatedly.  “It’s not as though you cannot read English.  When you were in college you had to write your B.Sc. exams in English.  And in India I’ve seen you read magazines and newspapers in English.  You could read this book, and see whether Esther and George would like to read it, too.  Then I could drive all three of you to the Great Booksdiscussion.  Or all of you could discuss the book right here.”

            “But I’m not interested in doing my leisure reading in English,” she responded.  “The only books I want to discuss are Bengali books, and I can’t talk about them to Esther or George.” The finality in her tone made me realize that this was a battle I was not going to win.

            During the next few days, I kept wondering what to do.  My mother would clearly be happier living in India.  But would it be right to let her live on her own there?  And how would I arrange for her to always have a cook and caretaker with her – she couldn’t do anything on her own anymore.  But every attempt that I made to help her settle down seemed to end unsuccessfully.

            Meanwhile, we had received a flyer from the Bengali Club informing us of a play that was going to be performed by a well-known Bengali drama group that was visiting the U.S., and all three of us were looking forward to it.

            It was an excellent performance, and my mother sat spellbound throughout the whole program.  After it was over, the audience was on its feet, applauding, and when the applause died down, the main actor requested us to remain standing and to sing Dhono dhanne pushpe bhora with him.  The response was instantaneous and overwhelming.  Without being really aware of what I was doing, I caught hold of my mother’s hand and squeezed it tight.  Then we both put our hearts into the words that we sang.

            Dhono dhanne has a special meaning for my mother and me.  Years ago, when I was a child in India, I came home from school one day in a rare state of excitement.  We had just started studying the history of the Mughal Empire, and I found it fascinating.  “Even the names of the emperors are poetic,” I had enthused to my mother, whom I always treated to a long discussion on what I had done in school.  And I told her the names of the first two emperors.

            “Do you know the names of all of them – all the famous ones, at least?” she asked.

            “No – what are they?”

            And she repeated them for me.  And I made her repeat them over and over again till I knew them too, and was almost chanting them because, to me, they sounded like pure music.

            I told her so.

            “There are other musical words in the world,” she said.  “If you really want to listen to something enchanting, listen to this ---“ And she sang Dhono dhanne for me.  I had always liked the song but now I found I loved the fervor with which she intoned the words, and explained the background against which they were written.  My mother’s immediate family had taken part in the freedom struggle, and she always talked to me about the years that led up to the events of 1947 with a passion that moved me.  I felt that passion in her paraphrasing of the song.

            This world of ours is filled with riches, grain fields and flowers.

            And in its midst is a land that is the best land of all.  It is fashioned from dreams and misted with memories.

            It is the queen of all nations.  It is the land of my birth.

            Her voice took on a soft tenderness when she sang two other lines:

            Its inhabitants fall asleep to the singing of birds and awaken to the same melody and This is the soil that I was born on; may I die here as well.

            Since that day, she and I often sang Dhono dhanne together.

Now, after the song was over, we slowly filed out of the hall, and got into the car, our movements heavy with emotion.

            “Didn’t you enjoy that?” I asked my mother after a while.

            “Yes,” she replied immediately.  Then she became quiet.  I looked at her with a twinge of unease, and waited for her to continue, conscious that the atmosphere in the car was gradually becoming dense with unspoken emotions of a different, ominous kind.

            Suddenly words burst out of her.  “It’s such a betrayal!” she gasped.  “We fought so hard for the freedom of our country!  And now all our children decide to go live in the West!  I didn’t want you to leave India but I told myself that it was your life and I shouldn’t interfere.  I never thought then that one day I would have to face the prospect of living with you in the West as well!”

            I looked at her incredulously.  “Yes, you did fight hard,” I agreed finally.  “All of you did.  And you made great sacrifices.  And you were justifiably proud of what you had achieved.  But you never told me that you felt this passionately about my leaving India.  You did tell me that it was better to be a free citizen in one’s own country than to be an immigrant in someone else’s, but you never voiced this kind of sentiment about it being a betrayal.  And anyway, this is the US that we live in, not Britain.  So why is it a betrayal?”  I took a long, shuddering breath to steady myself.  “Ma, people have always migrated to places where they hoped to make a better future for themselves.  The Aryans came to India from the Russian steppes, the Tagore family moved from East to West Bengal, and our ancestors came to Bengal from Kanuaj.”  A great weariness engulfed me.  For the first time I got the feeling that I was dealing with forces that were far beyond me.

            It was a couple of days later.  I got up early one morning, and looked out of the window.  The beauty of a New Jersey morning in the summer filled me with the peace and happiness that comes from seeing a landscape that one has claimed as one’s own.  The leaves of the red maple tree outside my window stirred languidly in the morning breeze, their elegant, finger-like shapes softly caressing the clear blue (?) sky.  A copper beech, with its very different shade of red, stood stolid and sentinel-like.  On the right was a holly bush with its pointy, prickly leaves and associations with snow, crisp, cold air, and Christmas.  Suddenly, a red cardinal flitted by over the line of hydrangea bushes, the muted blues, pinks and grays of whose blossoms smiled softly in the early sunlight.

            And then the realization dawned on me that this same scene could look completely alien to other eyes.  That sky was not my mother’s sky; those trees were not her trees; that bird was not one that she could instinctively claim as her own.

            That day, as soon as I reached the office I made an important call.  Then I called my mother.  “I’ve got you booked on next week’s flight back to India,” I said.  “Ma, I’m going to let you go home.”

(Posted December 1, 2015)

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Comments from Pronoy C. received on Dec 2, 2015: Nice collection. I commend you and Amitabha for continuing this effort of capturing the memories of Bengali immigrants. Jayshree's story of her mother is very touching and of course she is a good writer so expressed the feelings very well. Now a days if I stay in India more than a month I miss my maple tree and quiet cul-de-sac in front of my house in New Jersey. When I moved to Kolkata in 50s  I missed the narrow lanes (golis) of Benaras the same way. Our mind is malleable, it changes with time and environment. Jayashree's writing triggered my thinking about how my 'home' kept on changing. She wrote an excellent article. Please convey my congratulations to her.  

Comments from Bakul B. received on Dec 2, 2015: I was able to read the articles within a day of posting. I enjoyed all of them very much. Thank you. Please keep up this worthwhile effort. 

Comments from Shyamal S received on Dec 2, 2015: 
What a wonderfully poignant story!
The story successfully expresses the universality of many immigrants when they bring their parents in their newly adopted countries.
The writer has expressed beautifully her concerns as a daughter; also expressed equally well the point of view of her lonely mother.
I had a similar experience when my father visited us in New York; he told me once ,"I am having a life of a first class political prisoner. I get all the comforts but no freedom to go out and talk to people". 
I enjoyed the writing style too - it was captivating from the beginning.  
Incidents like meeting with the neighbors and singing "Dhano Dhanye Puspe Bharaa" added different dimensions to the story. Linking these incidents were done skillfully.
However, I feel that the story ended somewhat hastily. I was expecting a bit more; I was hoping the writer would write a few lines to express the pain of the daughter to send her mother back in India. 

Comments from Shipra S. received on Dec 3, 2015: Enjoyed the article written by Jayashree Chatterjee. A poignant and heartfelt narrative. I think it speaks for many of us. 

Comments from Arun G. received on Dec 6, 2017: These articles are excellent. Thanks.

Comments from Kakali S. received on Dec 6, 2015: Thank you for the Facebook links. From the excerpts I went back to my university life here. Very nostalgic. ... I am not a writer but I might pen down some of my memories some day. 

Comments from Satya J. received on January 17, 2016: Loved reading the article by Jayashree Chatterjee. She has opened up the dialogue to include the fact that the Indian /Bengali immigration to the  US is not a very linear path. Historically, most immigrants to the US, be they Irish, Italians or Jews, made it to the New Land and had no reason to look back. They had fled from famines, war and natural disasters. Our reasons to come to the US are much more complex. Comparing notes, I found many technocrat Bengali peers to admit that the friends they left behind in India had just as good a life as they enjoyed in the US. Jayashree Chatterjee's article is a heart felt narrative of a person who would rather stay in India, in spite of the limitations.

There's No Place Like Home
Jayashree Chatterjee