Immigrant Bengalis


Mekhala Banerjee

“Surprise!”, the crowd shouted as soon as Jhula stepped inside Sheila’s living room. Jhula had no idea what was going on. Her daughter in her lap woke up at the sound of laughter and clapping from the room-full of people. Her husband, Santi. moved closer to explain, “It’s is your birthday. They are giving you a surprise party”. Wearing a sari, bangles on her hand and a red dot on her forehead, she looked around shyly. She saw only four familiar faces among the crowd.

Jhula’s mind flew back to white patches of cloud floating as a canoe on a vast blue sky.

A ten-year old girl is sitting on a small rug in front of a big plate full of sweets. Next to that plate, there is a lighted clay lamp. Ma is blowing a conch shell. Greedy little brother and sisters are eying the sweets on the plate. That year Chotopishi (Daddy’s youngest sister) came with her son and daughter to make the day more special.

Growing up in India as a child she wasn’t familiar with surprise parties. No parties were held for their birthdays. In fact, they celebrated her birthday as per the lunar calendar. So, it used to fall on different days of the English calendar. No matter when it was held, it was always exciting to wear new clothes on birthdays, get to eat your favorite food and receive blessings from the elders. There were a few gifts from relatives, who were usually only a handful in number. No outsiders except her childhood teacher who loved her very much and used to give her gift of story books. Her passion was reading books.

 Jhula’s dream about her childhood came back to reality. “Hand me over your baby,” Sheila grabbed the little bundle joyfully.  Sheila liked to carry the baby all the time. “Now you come and sit here,” Mary pulled Jhula to the dining table. “Oh ma!” she replied back in Bengali, surprised by Sheila’s sudden move.

Although Jhula had a master’s degree she couldn’t speak English. She hadn’t seen such a beautiful and huge cake in her life In India. There on birthdays they were supposed to eat “payesh” (a type of rice pudding), not cake. Ten or twelve people gathered around her and sang the happy birthday song.  She then blew off the candle and cut the cake. She didn’t want to mess up any of the steps. Mary gave her a hug and said, “I will make another beautiful cake, and you can keep it” It was beyond her imagination that somebody could make this kind of fancy thing. Later she found out that Mary was a fabulous cook and baking was her real talent. Her husband, Jake, and Sheila’s husband, John, worked in the same lab where her husband, Santi, worked. Jake and Mary were of German decent and were a strong and stout, handsome looking couple and extremely intelligent. Jake could make you laugh in two minutes, and Mary had a loud, vibrant laugh. Sheila and John were British and were a polite, neatly dressed, tall and slim, sweet couple with nice smiles.

The day Jhula had landed in this new country these two couples had welcomed her to their homes and hearts.  A newlywed Muslim couple arrived from Bangladesh at around the same time.  Mary and Sheila arranged a welcome party for all of them with lots of gift. Although these two women were different in many respects, they were very similar when it came to helping others. Almost every day Jhula would think that in this foreign land, these two women were probably God-sent. Mary taught her the A to Z in the kitchen art, took her shopping, introduced her to the famous American practice of “sale”. The other three taught her driving. The two husbands were excellent car mechanics. They helped Santi buy an old car for very little money, and then they fixed it. The two women helped her settle in her new home. One day. Jhula mentioned to them that she didn’t have to take care of her daughter in India because there were always people around, specially her mom or mother-in- law, to attend to the child’s needs. After that they even started to take care of her daughter.

 Jhula was often very homesick. Back in India she never had to stay alone, because their house was always full of people. Here not only was she alone in the apartment most of the time, she did not see a single face on the street. In India, if you stood on your balcony, you would see hundreds of people passing by. You would hear them talking, see kids playing wherever they could find a place to play. Here things were so different. She would tell herself, “I could feel the rhythm of life there but here it feels like a dead city.”

“Dinner is ready. Come, give Kumi to me. I can handle her.” Sheila took the baby from her lap. Jhula followed her to the kitchen.

Everybody was amazed to see ten large pizzas arranged on the table.

John announced, “Our famous chef made these from scratch. Give her a big hand”.

Noise from all the Laughing and clapping made Kumi cry. Sheila went to the other room to calm her down.

Santi came close to her. “Pizza is a popular food here. I am sure you will like it.” By that time Mary had brought a big slice of pizza to Jhula. “Come sit at the table. Would you like any drink?” Jhula nodded, “yes”.

That was the beginning of her party experience in this new continent.

On her way to work in the morning, Mary gave Jake and Santi ride to the lab. John gave them ride back home in the evening. As Sheila didn’t work she offered to give Jhula company all day long. Both the couples had no children then, so it was a blessing for Jhula in a way. Little Kumi got all the attention she needed.

Jhula had not been exposed to other religions before. Soon she learned that her new friends were quite religious. Every Sunday morning John and Sheila went to church without fail. And Jake and Mary went to synagogue every Friday. As a Hindu, Jhula prayed twice daily at home, because there wasn’t any temple in a small town like Long Island.

Although she couldn’t speak or understand English well, she felt quite comfortable with them. Sheila often took care of Kumi so that Khula and Santi could enjoy some free time which would have been very rare back in India. There everybody would be happy yo take care of the baby but they wouldn’t encourage them to go out to a movie or dinner at a restaurant.

Three families from three continents with different religious beliefs became close friends in a short period of time. To Jhula, that seemed to be a miracle.

One afternoon Jhula was sitting on the yard in front of their apartment building, and Kumi was playing with her doll. There had been a shower few hours ago, and the golden sun was playing hide and sick with the clouds.

A gorgeous rainbow spread out on the blue sky.

Her mind was filled with joy and happiness but she didn’t know why. At night, she couldn’t close her eyelids for a long time. As she drifted into sleep, she realized that in this foreign land she had found those two couples just like a colorful rainbow in her mind’s sky.

Jake and Mary both were hyper-active, head-strong and short-tempered. Mary was an avid gardener, extremely intelligent and very hard-working. She could not sit idle and didn’t care for fancy clothes or make up. On the other hand, Sheila and John were very calm and never lost their temper. Sheila was an artist and loved to sew hand-made greeting cards. Her cards were enthusiastically received by her friends on special occasions.  


Jhula is sitting under the beautiful canopy of orange-colored leaves of a huge maple tree. Forty years have gone by but not a single day has passed without the faces of her four friends flashing on her mind’s mirror. Four more kids have joined their three-family circle. Sheila has two boys, and Mary has a girl and a boy.

The three families have moved to different towns but their friendship is still so tight that no force on earth can separate them. On her daughter’s wedding day, they all come to take part as her own brothers and sisters. Sheila and John keep a sharp eye on all tasks as they are very particular and concerned by nature. They all wear Indian attire to blend in with their invited guests. Jhula’s home is full of things received as gifts from expensive computer to hand-stitched wall hanging.

Jhula remembers something from years ago. Just before they left Long Island for Chicago, Santi had a car accident. Thanks to God, he was OK but their car looked like trash. Jake repaired all the damages and John painted so well it looked like an almost new car. Enjoying the nice fall breeze that carried a sweet fragrance Jhula noticed tears are rolling down her chicks.

The goodbye scene flashed back on her mind’s eye. The car was loaded and Santi was talking to somebody, about to leave. Sheila was standing under a tree, holding Kumi on her chest. Her eyes were red and tears were flowing like a stream. She remembered her mom’s words: “Laughter can be faked but not tears”.

Another time the three families went to California to attend a professional society meeting. But as graduate student and post-docs, Santi and his colleagues were could not afford air fares. So they decided to take a cross country trip from Long Island to California in three cars. They decided to stop at the same places at night so they would be together. In Denver Santi and Jhula stayed at Jake’s dad’s house. John and Jake were staying at Jake’s mom’s place. They had lunch in one house and dinner at the other. By then Jhula had just started to follow and speak English but haltingly.

A frail old gentleman introduced himself as Jake’s dad. He had survived Nazi concentration camps but had become an entertainer to offer laughter to his audiences. Jake got his helpful nature from his dad. Later Jake told them that his father and the other men had to go through inhuman torture in these camps, and his father suffered lots of health problems because of his time there. Their minds were so shattered that it was difficult for him to live a normal family life. Jake explained that that was the reason behind the divorce of his dad and mom. “But mom and dad both are wonderful people,” Jake went on to add.

Jhula had a good conversation with Jake’s Hungarian stepmother who spoke in heavily accented, broken English, and Jake’s cute little sister, Aly. She also met Johana, Jake’s mom, her husband, and an adopted teenage boy, named David.

Jhula was moved by their hospitality. Jhula had grown up in a small town in India, with very little exposure to the outside world. She had read a little about Hitler in her high school history book but knew nothing at all about concentration camps. Later when she watched movies like Swindler’s List or Sophie’s Choice she was so shaken that she had to get out of the movie theater to breathe fresh air.

Jhula was deeply disturbed by the horror stories she heard from Johana. Noticing her pale face and vacant look, Johana tried to lighten up the atmosphere with her romantic adventures. “We met in the camp, fell in love and got married as soon as we stepped in this country. Although we lost everything, God gave us love to start our life again.” She paused to take a breath. “Then Jake and Jerry came along, we forgot all about what we went through”.

During all the years Jhula and her family were close friends with the two couples, she never for a single moment thought that they are not her blood relations. Kids were taught the same way. Every time Santi’s old car broke down, “Woodward’s car shop is there to help,” Sheila would say in a laughing voice. They went on vacations with six kids, twelve to six years of age. When his car key was put in the trunk and then closed by mistake, John, the cool guy, would calmly nod, “Oh, well. This is the price we have to pay for being a parent”. When one of the children stepped on a sandwich, Mary would make a fresh one without getting upset. With his usual comical manner Jake would say, “After all our experience with Kumi, how could we decide to have kids? Didn’t we learn any lessons?”

Last Christmas Jhula was looking through the window at the white layer of snow reflecting the glory of the sun. She had to put up a small Christmas tree with a few ornaments. May be twenty years ago one Christmas both the families came to spend vacation here. They had a big, fully decorated Christmas tree with lots of gifts underneath. Lunch and dinner tables were covered with Indian foods for six adults and twelve kids. Room was filled up with the sounds of laughter, yelling, shouting, crying, and what not. On the morning of twenty fifth John, surrounded by everybody, read a sermon from the Bible. Two days ago, Mary had lighted the Menorah she always carried with her on a Jewish holiday. Jake uttered a few mantras from the Torah in Hebrew.

Jhula felt an auspicious sensation of peace and happiness in the house.

She didn’t know what color is God. But after so many years she clearly remembers that her eyes were full of tears of joy and her heart was full of gratitude to him. Just like the beautiful fragrance of incense, she still could feel the presence of God as he showered his blessings. It was easy for her to accept God as the father of all faiths as she had grown up in household that respected all religions. It is true that you can feel the presence of God in you when you see it in others.

Editors’ Note: The author is known to her family and friends as Jhula.

(Posted October 1, 2017)

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