Immigrant Bengalis


Days and Nights in Cambridge, Massachusetts:
Baby Steps toward the Mainstream

Rahul Ray

With my meager post-doctoral stipend from MIT, and living in a roach-infested, rent-controlled apartment in North Cambridge, we were truly anexample of the working poor in the land of plenty. Under the stipulations of H-1, the post-student visa that I had, I could only work in an academic institution with whatever salary they offered. In the case of heavy-weights like Harvard and MIT, you either take the offer, however meager, or leave it. No negotiations are entertained. The idea is, don’t complain about the paltry fellowship, because the training you get from these institutions is sure to propel you later to plum jobs in academia or industry!

But even this lofty promise came with a huge price-tag. In the letter offering me a postdoctoral position in Professor Masamune’s lab at MIT, his secretary wrote:  ‘You will be expected to spend all your time in his lab.’ Soon I found that this articulation was a far cry from being euphemistic. I had to work in the lab, carrying out chemical research at least twelve hours a day six days a week. This routine was relaxed a bit on Sundays, from noon till 7 in the evening. I always loved science, but I also had a strong penchant for doing other things. As a result I lasted only for a year in this lab and joined another lab in MIT which had a significantly humane work-load and expectation. My stipend in the next position was slightly better than the previous one, but not enough to make me financially comfortable.

Before coming to America, Swapna and I were classmates in the M.Sc. Pure Chemistry department at the Rajabazar Science College under the University of Calcutta. We were also involved in a romantic relationship. Prior to my departure to the US I had promised Swapna, who was a Ph.D. fellow in the Department of Applied Chemistry, that we would get married after she finished her Ph.D. Unfortunately, her thesis advisor suddenly passed away and she became an academic orphan. She tried for a while to get a new advisor but failed. Faced with this dilemma, one summer I went to Kolkata, got married to Swapna, and we traveled to the US together. Our lives, careers and interests have remained intertwined ever since.

Frustrated with her inability to find an alternate advisor to finish Ph.D. in Kolkata, Swapna was completely opposed to going back to school. But soon she learned that staying home is not much fun, and urgently wanted to become a student again. However, I was almost finished with my doctorate and she was totally opposed to staying back in Pullman, WA by herself. Therefore, she quickly obtained a master’s in biochemical nutrition before relocating to Cambridge, Massachusetts.

After moving to Cambridge I was busy with my research-work and away from home most of the time, and Swapna became bored and frustrated again from staying home by herself. I submitted her plea for a position to Prof. Masamune, my mentor. After reviewing her background he happily offered her a research tech position in his lab.  Therefore, within three months after we relocated to Cambridge, Swapna and I were working in the same lab at MIT.  However, our joint salary remained far below the then poverty level.  

Swapna has always been a people-friendly person and spoke to anybody and everybody within her eyesight.  She met Prof. Har Govind Khorana, the Nobel Laureate chemist, while climbing up the stairs in the Chemistry Building at MIT where he had an entire floor for his lab and people. He laughingly told Swapna about the benefits of climbing stairs regularly as a mode of exercise. I should note that doing exercises regularly was not in vogue in those days, particularly for a thin person like Dr. Khorana.  Swapna befriended countless others in this way. Dr. Masamune was also fond of her.  As a result Swapna stayed back at Prof. Masamune’s lab while I transferred to another.

However, Swapna soon learned that with two masters’ degrees under her belt, her skills and training were far more marketable than mine, and after a brief search she landed a research tech job at the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), one of the much hallowed teaching and research hospitals of the Harvard Medical School.

It was truly a game-changer. Her salary was significantly better than my stipend, and with two incomes, our financial situation got a big boost.   Several other things also changed. Swapna did scientific research at MGH, but it was after all a hospital, and ‘regular’ people with ‘real jobs’ worked there. Swapna’s people-friendliness truly blossomed at MGH. In no time she befriended janitors to doctors at her new work place.

Swapna also became a fast friend of Ned French. Ned was a tall and handsome man with a mild manner and an ever-present friendly grinon his face. He was a janitor at MGH. Coming from India, Swapna had specific ideas about people of modest professions like janitors. But, Ned looked and behaved much like a polished intellectual than a lowly janitor. Actually it turned out that his father was a college professor in some mid-western state.

Soon Ned confided to Swapna that his real job was to unionize the service employees at MGH. Swapna never took any interest in politics, let alone politics of a foreign land. Ned took pity at her ignorance and took up the task of teaching her about civil rights, labor movement, etc. Swapna confided to me that almost all of it was above her head. One day Ned was in a chatty mood.

“You know Swapna, management of this hospital doesn’t like me, ‘cause I am a union-worker.  They think I am a trouble-maker.” Ned grinned.

“Does that mean that you may lose your job doing this?”

Ned laughed.

“I am sure that they will be very happy getting rid of me, but they can’t, at least not very easily. Do you know why?”

“No, I don’t.”

“’Cause I am white. They have to give me three warnings about my job-performance before they can think of kicking me out. But, if I were a black or Hispanic person they could fire me anytime without warning.”

This was Swapna’s lesson in Civil Rights and Labor Laws 101 in practice. But each day after work, she made sure that her lab was clean, so that ‘the management’ did not get an excuse that Ned was not doing his job properly.

Soon came the local elections, and Ned worked for Mel King, an African American candidate for mayor of Boston. In no time Swapna came home with campaign literature for Mel and a lapel button bearing the name of the candidate, courtesy of Ned French.

In a short time the mayoral race heated up, and to my utter surprise Swapna started giving me fiery speeches about why a black man was more suitable to be the mayor of Boston than Ray Flynn, a darling of the Democratic Party machinery in Massachusetts. Swapna’s sudden interest in politics reminded me of events a few years earlier when there was a big campus-excitement about John Anderson, a progressive candidate vying for the Republican ticket for the White House. My interest in Anderson’s candidacy ended after his defeat in the primary, though I remained a political junkie. The local election in Boston came and went. Mel King did not win, and Swapna’s interest in politics came to an end.

I met Ned a few times. He impressed me with his knowledge of labor movement around the world and his passionate feeling for low-paid employees, particularly minority and female workers. I was a product of many left-wing movements and agitations in Kolkata. Ned rekindled my passion for left-wing politics once again after many years.

The true color of Ned’s political ideology shone brightly through when Arjun, our first son, was born with a serious bacterial infection and an Apgar score of merely 2. He barely made it, and had to be left in the hospital for two weeks for treatment and observation. It was traumatic for Swapna to come home without her newborn.

During these two weeks Swapna had to go there every day to breast-feed the newborn.  To make things worse Swapna was given an epidural injection before delivery which made a large hole in her back and she was in terrible pain. Unfortunately I couldn’t take time off from my work.  During that challenging time Ned came to our rescue.  For two weeks Ned came to our apartment in Cambridge from work every day, literally carried Swapna in his arms to his car and drove her to the hospital. At the end of the day I went to the hospital and brought her home. Within a year after this Ned left the job at MGH to organize labor at some other place. Ned was lost to us forever but he left a deep impression on us as   a man who could put his money where his mouth was.

Swapna also became a close friend of Joan, a middle-aged white American and a secretary in the Renal Unit of MGH where they both worked.  Prior to Joan, most of Swapna’s American acquaintances were researchers, students, and strangely Ned, the union organizer. In contrast Joan belonged to mainstream America with typical middle class values. The two friends talked about their families, goings on in their workplace, shopping for holidays, but never about politics. While Ned spoke about civil and worker rights, Joan gave Swapna lessons in a lay version of market-driven economics, such as how to buy everything on sale.

One day Swapna confided with her about how badly she needed the job to support her family. At that, Joan asked her about my whereabouts. Swapna felt comfortable enough with her to divulge the amount of my postdoctoral stipend. It was a huge shock to her that with my doctorate degree I earned so little. “My son is a plumber, and he makes considerably more than your husband. He didn’t even finish high school!” she exclaimed in bewilderment.*

I have always been somewhat awkward socially. But Swapna more than made up for it with her magnanimous and friendly nature. She is the kind of person who gets a free taxi-ride or a free cup of coffee in a cafeteria from people whom she had met only transiently. Therefore, her befriending people like Joan, Ned and Laima and countless others helped her (and me in turn) to get to know people beyond the vaunted towers of the academia, and learn about trends and customs of the American society. Holding hands of these people we took wobbly baby steps to join the American mainstream.

*A joke goes around this part of the country about this plumber who demanded a hundred dollars an hour for his service. The home-owner spoke in bewilderment:  ‘I am a Harvard professor, and I make much less than you.’  ‘That is what I was before I became a plumber,’ the man replied.

(Posted December 1, 2015)

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Laima was a research technician in the same lab where Swapna worked, and soon they became bosom buddies. Something else was alsocommon between them. Don, Laima’s husband, was a post-doc like me (but at Harvard, not MIT). Shortly they were sharing stories about their financial woes or eccentricity of their respective husbands. Swapna and I always carried our lunch to work as a way of saving money. But such a practice is almost unthinkable to most Americans, no matter how poor they are. Laima was no exception. Somehow Swapna convinced her about the merits of such a practice in saving money as well as a way of staying healthy. For Laima, that meant not putting on extra weight. She was not particularly heavy-set, but losing weight and becoming thinner were her absolute mottos in life. 

Swapna has been a slender woman all her life. In those days in India, being a bit chubby was considered a sign of prosperity, which was translated into a sign of beauty. Most famous Bollywood actresses in those days were voluptuous. “Thin is beautiful” was an alien concept in those days. During her childhood and young adult days, Swapna’s thinness caused a grave concern for her parents.  As per tradition her parents had to get her married to a suitable groom.  But her thinness might be seriously disfavored by prospective grooms, they worried. As a result she was given periodic protein injections to ‘plump up’.  However, all such attempts failed to produce the desired result.

Another perennial concern of her parents was her bronze complexion.  In India ‘white is beautiful’, and complexion is particularly important for marriage-age women.  Anyone with a fair complexion is considered a beauty, no matter how ugly she may be otherwise.  While the majority of women in the country have dark complexion, images of all the goddesses (and there are many), with the exception of the goddess Kali, have milk-white to ripe-wheat complexion. Due to this dominant feeling, many young and dark-skinned girls have to go through a battery of treatments to make them ‘fair and lovely’.  These treatments often involve layering face and other exposed parts of the body with turmeric in milk fat.  As a young adult Swapna went through these types of aggravation repeatedly, yet she remained a bronze-skinned person.    

The table, however, was turned after we got married and came to America. Her colleagues at her workplace were outright envious of her complexion.  They also peppered her with questions about her secret to keeping so thin all along. By this time Swapna was pregnant with Arjun, our first child. She barely showed and worked all the way through the pregnancy. Her bags were kept packed, and when the day came she literally had to go to the hospital from her work. Her pain was almost unbearable, and I was driving as fast I could to reach the hospital. In doing so I jumped a red light and was almost immediately apprehended by a cop. The officer took my license and car registration to his car and came back after a short while. He asked me why I jumped the light, as is the usual practice.

“My wife is in terrible labor-pain, and we are rushing to hospital.” I answered.

At that he took a peek inside our car and spoke in bewilderment:  “She doesn’t look that at all. However, I have no choice but to believe you.  Anyhow, you have a clean driving record. Therefore, I will let you go this time. But you may not be this lucky next time you are caught. Good luck.”

Swapna remained thin even after Arjun’s birth, which became an enigma for her friends who pestered her even more about her secret to thinness. She obviously had no answer to this question. Actually she kept a closely-guarded secret from them - she always wanted to put on some weight as a way of looking pretty. Obviously all those drilling from her childhood made a permanent impression on her mind.

Swapna shared some of her childhood stories about attempts to fatten her up with Laima. One day she coyly confided that she wanted to put on some weight.

“You mean you want to be fat?’ Laima asked in bewilderment.

“No, no, I don’t want to be fat, but I think I would like put on a few extra pounds.”

Laima gave her a long gaze, and said

“You look just fine the way you are. Do you know how many women will give up everything to be thin like you?”

“I know. But, I think I will look prettier if I gain a few pounds.”  Swapna stood her ground.

“Well, if you insist, I will give you the address of the weight management clinic at MGH.”

One day Swapna went to that weight management clinic. After taking down her details, the receptionist asked her why she was there. “I want to gain some weight” – was her answer. The receptionist stared at her as if she had seen someone from a different planet. “Everyone in this country wants to lose weight, and you are here to gain!” She uttered in amazement

Swapna did not travel that path ever again.


Summary of Chapters 1-13: In the early eighties I came to Cambridge, Massachusetts, as a post-doctoral trainee at MIT after completing my Ph.D. at the Washington State University in Pullman, a campus town in the middle of nowhere but close enough to be impacted significantly by the eruption of Mount Saint Helens, a sleeping volcano in the Western part of the state. In Cambridge my wife, Swapna, and I lived in a rent-controlled high-rise building for people with meager income. There we lived among people of color, and surprisingly in the midst of a large number of Bengali post-doctoral trainees and students. Life was hard, but not without its charms. Moving to Cambridge/Boston was like re-joining the rich cultural life that we had left behind in Kolkata. We were fortunate to be able to nurture our cultural interests and linkages and make ourselves happy.