Immigrant Bengalis

A Second Chance at Life
Sketches from “My Life in the Media” #2

Satya Jeet

I pressed my nose against the window of the 707, seeing the terrain change below us from the snow capped Himalayas to the Arabian deserts,the blue of the Mediterranean, the rugged Alps and beyond. The routine of disembarking every three to four hours, climbing down the ladder and taking the bus to the various terminals in strange countries made me feel I was going somewhere exotic. The excitement of flying on a TWA 747 on the last leg of the journey from London to New York was not enough to keep me awake. By the time I woke up, we were on the ground at Kennedy Airport. Fortunately, a spectacular gift waited for us there.

We were ushered into the epic architectural design of Eero Saarinen. The structure was never called a terminal building. This was the TWA Flight Center. The building was the symbol of the jet age that it had ushered in. Before my very eyes, suspended in midair, were the sweeping walkways that I had read of. The undulating concrete forms suggested one of man’s earliest aspirations, the spirit of soaring through the air. The enormous glass sections reaching up to the heavens were no less inspiring than the Gothic windows of the cathedrals of medieval Europe. How they did build such a structure of reinforced concrete, I wondered. Spellbound, I roamed the building, lost in the marvel of this modern wonder till I remembered I had to catch the flight to Texas.

I ran to the Braniff terminal. I knew I was late and was afraid that I might have missed my onward flight. Those were the informal days of flying. A pretty young lady at the Braniff counter tore a page from my ticket voucher and waved me through. “Better get goin’ that way, young man, … and welcome to America,” she shouted as I ran.

I rushed down the corridor and came to what seemed a small lounge. People were seated in plush leather seats, chatting and having drinks. Lost and hesitant, I asked the young lady, “Which way to the plane to Dallas?”

She smiled and added sweetly, “Sir, you are on the plane.”

This was the first time I had walked through a jetway that connected an aircraft to the terminal building. I started my travels with the sporty jaunt of Uttam Kumar. At my very first stop in America, I had proved myself to be his country cousin, the most lovable and adorable Bhanu Bondopadhyay. 

I grabbed a seat towards the back of the cabin. The stewardess offered me a drink. No sooner had I lit up a Salem Menthol 100, a young man in an Army uniform asked me for a cigarette. I was glad to oblige.

He inhaled deeply and gulped down his drink. I noticed his hands were shaking. He puffed away and then he asked me for another cigarette. I obliged again. He lit up and leaned over towards me.

“The President is lying,” he whispered and stared at me conspiratorially.

“I beg your pardon,” I answered, somewhat taken aback.

Looking around us to make sure others would not overhear us, he repeated, “The President is lying.”

I was struck by the naivety of the young man in the Army uniform. Coming from India, we all knew, in fact we all expected, that the President, the Prime Minister and all his ministers to be lying! It would be news to me if a minister told the truth to the public!

This young man from Middle America was returning to the United States after seeing the horrors of the war in Vietnam. It was definitely not the righteous war he had opted for. Life magazine had yet to publish the pictures of the soldiers we lost every month. It would be some time before the image of the little girl fleeing down the country road, her entire body set on fire by napalm bombs, would make the front pages of American newspapers. In hindsight, I know I owe this young man a profound apology but I never noted who he was and I do not have a way to contact him.

It was the ‘Wild West’ all right that I had come to. Jamai Babu (brother-in-law) and Mangala-di (cousin) received me at Amarillo airport and drove me to their home in Borger, Texas. That night, my Sejda (brother) drove over from Lubbock where he attended Texas Tech University. Not willing to disturb the rest of the family, we stepped out of the house to catch up on the news from Calcutta. The only place lit up at midnight in Borger was the 7-11. Sejda explained that the store stayed open from seven in the morning to eleven at night. I was suitably impressed. What we did not know was that the police department kept a close eye on the store when it was closed. No sooner had we started our ‘adda’, two police cars pulled in to the parking lot. The officers rushed towards us, guns drawn. 

We stepped out of our car, hands in the air. Frankly, I was thrilled! Now I was convinced I was in Texas! Sejda explained out predicament and the police officers drew down. Foreign students were a welcome commodity in the US.

“Welcome to America,” one officer wished us.

Naïve in every way, I asked the officer if he carried a colt 45. He just nodded his head and walked away. It was still my first day in America and I had gone from being Uttam to Bhanu to Gomer Pyle.

Texas Tech was the largest land grant university in the United States. It would not be far from the truth to say, the campus was a self-functioning city. The research done in the agricultural department had played a major role in that Green Revolution of the sixties. Barring that distinction, the University was better known for its basketball and football teams. In Texas terms, that distinction was good enough.

There were sharp differences and that stood out in my new environment. I had escaped the Naxalbari student violence in India and had come to the United States. Here, the campus protest against the war in Vietnam took the form of young men growing out their hair. Folk musicians like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Jimmy Hendrix sang out their vision for America. Smell of marijuana wafted through the air at campus gatherings. The Sunday afternoon Frisbee game was a subtle message which spelled out, “Hell no, we won’t go: we won’t fight for Texaco.”

As a foreign student, I immersed myself whole-heartedly in my studies of architecture. Pouring over a drawing board, a T-square laid across the paper, I drew through the night. The campus radio station kept me awake, blaring The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and their likes. Several times a semester, the drama department put on plays that, for me, equaled trips to Broadway. The fraternity boys with their muscle cars took the pretty sorority girls out on dates to the football games. We escorted the girls who wore glasses to the screenings of classic films at the University Center. We bought them Cokes for a dime. We fell in love not only with each other but also with films of De Sica, Kurosawa, Fellini and Bergman. 

Perhaps the most significant difference in the American academic system that astounded me was the opportunity to study electives; courses that were not directly prescribed within the major field of one’s study. My friend David Wymer took a course in Spanish cooking and thereafter was the main attraction at Sunday afternoon parties. Shelly Burkhalter had taken ‘square dancing’, and still wearing her glasses, led us around the floor at the same parties. A number of my friends carried around Yasica 635 twin lens reflex cameras and snapped up pictures at every turn. They were turning in architectural design projects that were supplemented with photographs! I decided to get in on the act.

The mass communication department was like a party in progress. The music in the lobby was blaring; brightly colored posters hung everywhere. Stylishly dressed boys and girls slouched in corners on large pillows. In an office at the end of the hall, a charismatic man sporting a black turtleneck and wearing heavy, native Indian silver jewelry sat at his desk, surrounded by a bevy of good-looking girls and a few boys. This is way too upscale for me, I thought and turned around to leave.

“Hey, you. Aren’t you the guy who led the discussion after the Lina Wertmuller film at the UC Film Club?” somebody shouted from behind me.

Hershel Womack, the man at the desk had come out to the hallway and was calling me back. He introduced himself as the instructor of photography. “I assume your interest is in film. All films start with a single frame of photography. Can I get you started in that first frame?” he asked.

If ever I felt like a fish coming back into water, it was the time I picked up my first camera. As I turned the knob between my thumb and index finger and the image became focused on the ground glass, I could see life with clarity and renewed interest. All my self-doubts were pushed away. A fire started and blazed within me.

It was one thing to see an image through a camera; it was quite another challenge to shoot a roll of film, process it in a chemical tank to create a negative and then to print the image through an enlarger on to a paper in a photo lab. Much as I tried, the larger cycle of creation was just a step beyond my clumsy self. I left large water spots on the negatives; from out of nowhere, my thumb impressions jumped up at me across my prints. In other words, the real world came between my imagination and the product.

It was both a cultural and a financial crisis. My colleagues, born and raised in the US had been given cameras in high school; they were old pros at this game. They also had money to buy and shoot off many rolls of film to get the results they wanted. I could barely save enough money from my meager student assistant earnings to expose a roll or two a week.

I don’t know how Hershel sized up the situation accurately. He walked up to me in the photo lab. In the dim light of the safety lamp; he handed me a single brass key.

“There’s a metal safe in the back,” he whispered. “There are all kinds of old films and reams of photo paper in it. They sent over the load from Reese Air Force base. See if you can salvage some of it for yourself.”

Are you kidding, I thought to myself? The last time I had such a moment of self-indulgence was when, at the age of five I was locked up inside Jalojog Sweets at closing. I stuffed my face with sweets through the night and woke up to realize it was just a dream. This offer from Hershel was for real!

There was no stopping me now. I photographed everything I could see. I made a couple of dollars shooting portfolios for the students from the art department. The Baptist Church invited me to take pictures at their Christmas party. The rodeo gave me free passes to shoot ‘action’ pictures of cowboys riding wild bulls. The Red Raiders pep squad took me to the football games to shoot human-interest stories from the sidelines. Late in the summer evenings, I snuck off with the wild crowd to shoot illegal drag races in the middle of cornfields, way out in the country. I floated through the serene air above Albuquerque in a hot air balloon and saw the sun come up as never before. You name it and I was there with my camera. And then one day the dean called for me.

“What have you been doing?” he asked me gravely.

“Well, what do you mean sir,” I stammered.

“You have signed up for a full academic load in the Mass Communication department and you have also signed up to do your final thesis in the Architecture Department.” He stared at me for a while. Failing to get an answer he continued. “Doing the thesis is a full time job. How will you have the time to do both the color photography and mass communication theory courses you have signed up for?”

I breathed a sigh of relief at the being told I was not being accused of a crime.

“You have taken far too many undergraduate courses here. You have to move on. What do you want to do with your life, young man?”

In this unguarded moment, the truth slipped out of my mouth. “I would like to make movies, sir,” I whispered.

No sooner had those dreaded words left my mouth, panic set in. How could you say this, I asked myself? Stupid! Stupid fool! I chastised myself. My stomach started tying itself in knots. My throat became parched; I needed some water. I wanted to run out of the room and hide my face in a dark room.  

“Oh, very well,” the Dean responded. “Simply great! We don’t teach film making here at Texas Tech, you know. You have to go to graduate school. Is that OK with you, my friend? Dr. William Mackie is the head of the film division at the University of Texas at Austin. You have to see him. I will square you up with Bill.”

The conversation was going too fast for me but it was not like me to talk back to the dean.

“Go and see your academic counselor, Dr. Horn and we will have you out of here by the end of next semester. Drop the thesis. It is no use to you anymore.”

Drop the architecture thesis? Did I hear him right? I wondered.

“Give me a few minutes to raise Bill at UT. Make yourself at home in the lounge,” he trailed off.

I waited in the lobby for a minute or two. The weight of the Dean’s pronouncement percolated inside myself. Does the Dean really expect me to drop the thesis, I asked myself? How will I tell my father? What are the words to say, I have dropped out of Architecture school? And for what purpose? To make movies? How ridiculous will that sound?

I wanted to run back to the dean and fall at his feet. ‘There has been a misunderstanding’, I would plead. ‘I am not one of those boys who fail in the matriculation exams. I do not have a uncle to rescue me from Kalyan or Thana and bring me home. Please let me do the architecture thesis. I am a good boy; I passed the matriculation in the first division and studied at IIT in Kharagpur before I came to the United States’.

I charged towards the dean’s office.

When I entered his office, the Dean was smiling nonchalantly at me and signaled for me to sit down. “It is all done. Bill Mackie will be expecting you next fall. I told him, you have made quite a name for yourself here as a photographer for The Daily News. Hell, I love your quirky pictures from the sidelines.”

There was no opportunity to beg.

“Study for your GRE and nail it,” he winked. There was a possibility of a graduate student assistantship at UT. That real possibility was being hinted at. I was numb and nodded in agreement.

I saw my academic counselor and he made the changes I needed to graduate from Texas Tech. There was an outstanding course from the science stream that I had to fulfill. Out of the blue, Dr. Horn suggested I take a course in computer science. “You never know; someday you artistic types may be able to use the computer in your line of work.

In the cycle of student life, the promise of a graduate assistantship is supposed to make you euphoric. I remained lost in my own confusion and could not partake of that joy. I moped around, avoiding my friends at all cost. Color photography was still the cutting edge and I just could not wrap my arms around it. Occasionally, Hershel would say some kind words but that only carried me through for a few hours. Then I got a wake-up call.

I rushed to the computer department. The instructor asked me why I had not attended his classes since my initial orientation. I knew it would be a major insult if I told him that I had completely blocked his course out of my mind. In fact, I hardly remembered his face! I knew I had to pass his course to graduate. I mumbled something in broken English and told him I will come to the final exam.

There was only one person I knew who could help me at this point. Avinash Tilak was a graduate of IIT Powai and was known as a brilliant Ph. D. student in the Industrial Engineering department. I had often seen him, late at night, stepping out of the computer center with stacks of computer cards under his arms. Surely, I thought, he could do something for me.

I appeared at Avinash’s house with my computer text. He was not happy to see me. Being informed that I had not cracked the book all semester, he pointed out that the odds were undoubtedly not in our favor. We started with basic algorithms.

Avinash, I had been told, was a fabulous teacher. It took us the better part of the night to get through the textbook. He knew what was important and we skipped several sections. He paraphrased the essence of what could be asked in an undergraduate final exam and then we hoped for the best. I thanked him profusely, promised to buy a round at our favorite pub, Little Italy, and packed up my notes. Avinash stared at me with a strange look on his face. I knew he was holding back.

“You don’t think I will make it, Avi, do you? I asked.

“No. You will make it, I am sure. What I can’t reconcile is, if you are smart enough to understand computers, why are you wasting your time making pictures?”

It was dawn and we did not have time to get into his question. I waited to pass the computer course and I kept my word to buy my round at our local pub. “Avi,” I fired the first volley over a beer, “do you know anything about making pictures?”

I must have taken Avi by surprise because I could tell he did not think the question was important. “Would you like to know something about making picture,” I persisted.

Always humble, showing his calm Konkani Brahmin temperament, he agreed that he should learn a little about making pictures, or ‘art’ as he called it. On the way home, I lent him a copy of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, a translation of Tagore by Amiya Chakravarty and a photo collection called ‘The Family of Man’.

I drifted for the next few weeks, floating in the limbo between undergraduate and graduate school. The constant engagement of the university life had given me a purpose for the last five years. Now I was a free bird but I had nowhere to go.

Avinash came back with the books I had lent him. His hazel eyes were blood shot. The calm demeanor of his Konkani Brahmani heritage had been greatly disturbed. Some ‘rakhasha’ must have entered the ‘rishi’s’ abode. He handed the books back without a comment.

“Did you like my books,” I asked?

“Like the books?” He flared up, as I had never seen him do before. “These are great!”

“Would you like some more?” I asked politely. He had called me stupid and I was not going to let him off easily.

“No,” he backed off.

“Why not Avi? You will enjoy these books very much.”

“How long have you been making pictures?” he asked.

I had to admit, I had been making pictures for a very long time. Photography was new to me but I could draw reasonable portraits as a child.

“I could not compete with you guys,” he said in a monotone. “You have a twenty year head start and I could never catch up,” he replied and walked out of my apartment. I stared at the receding figure and admired Avi’s clear understanding on the world.

Avi started his car and then looked up at me from the driveway. “If I had a second chance at life, I would make pictures like you,” he shouted. Then he drove away.

Strange as it seems now, I felt validated by his remarks. I slept well that night.

Early next morning I called my landlord. “Jim,” I began, “I will be moving to Austin at the end of this month ….. yes, thank you. I will leave the key to the apartment under the front door mat for you ….. Please say hello to Ann for me and convey my love to little Derrick. Thanks……”

(Posted December 10, 2013)

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Comments from AS received on January 9, 2014: "Wonderful venture. Enjoyed reading the articles. Sometimes could relate them to us, making it a bit emotional too!"