Immigrant Bengalis

A Surprise, a Shock and a Relief!

Subhash Nandy

I was in the last semester of the final year of my studies at a prestigious engineering college in India.  I had already gone through severalcampus interviews with the recruiting managers of well-known companies.  However, I did not get called for any on-site interview at these companies.  The future did not look so exciting and promising to me as it had looked only a few years earlier.

In the mid nineteen-seventies, I had started my academic life at this engineering college with some trepidation in my heart.  I was excited about the fact that I could secure a foothold there.  At the same time, I had heard from my friends that it was a daunting task to complete five years of rigorous studies at that engineering college.  

It was in this last year of my study that I could finally sense my imminent graduation and the possibility of working in the real world – and it excited me!  I kept on thinking to myself, “What else can I do at the end of college?”  I found out from my classmates that another avenue that I could pursue was to apply for admission to graduate schools in USA.

I had sent inquiry letters to a few prospective universities and received their glossy brochures in the mail.  I would spend hours surreptitiously in my room, perusing those glossy informational brochures from colleges abroad.  I imagined myself loitering in the academic corridors of those hallowed campuses.

In one of those booklets, there was a picture of a serene beach near the college campus.  I would imagine walking on this lovely beach, with waves of blue water breaking up at my feet.  The beach looked so pristine!  In my mind, I would contrast my experience of walking on a crowded beach in Digha, near our college, with what I saw and imagined in that booklet.  I questioned myself, “How can the beach in this foreign land remain so desolate and serene?” 

In another booklet, I saw the picture of a campus with brightly painted buildings located in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.  The sky was azure blue with bright sunlight reflecting off the buildings.  The far-away mountains in the picture were white with snow.  I had never seen snow falling from the sky, except when I traveled with my parents to Kashmir – where I had seen snow-capped mountains in the distance.  After looking at the campus brochure, I imagined myself trudging in the snow covered campus back to home at the end of my classes. 

All this idle daydreaming would let me escape for a while from the reality of completing assignments and preparing for the examinations.  At the start of the second semester in the final year of my study, I did apply to a few universities in USA for graduate studies.  I knew well that I could not study abroad, unless the foreign university would offer full academic scholarship.  By the month of April of that year, I did hear from a few of those universities, with offers of full scholarships.  Again, I felt elated at my success, knowing little what awaited at the other end! 

I decided finally to join Colorado State University for graduate studies.  I was all too excited about getting ready for my big trip.  However, my parents were very worried.  I would go to a distant place and would live on my own. My parents made sure that I had sufficient woolen clothes to protect me from the harsh winter in Colorado.  

As the day for my departure came closer, my family and friends would invite me to their homes to have dinner with them.  One of them was my father’s close friend, Mr. Banjeree, or Banerjee uncle.  This uncle and his wife were very kind to me.  They had two pretty girls who looked quite alike.  One of them, Jhimi, was about my age, and the other, Rimi, was younger than me.  I was quite friendly with both of them.  However, I grew attracted to the younger one, Rimi, over time. 

Rimi was tall with a pretty face and an aquiline nose. During my frequent visits from college to my parent’s place in Calcutta, I would find any excuse to visit Banerjee uncle’s house just to chat with Rimi. On a few occasions, I had gone out to watch matinee movie shows with her.  In the darkness of the movie hall, I would hesitantly hold Rimi’s hand, not sure whether she would reject my move.  But Rimi did not disapprove of it.

Once in a while, we would stop by at a local café for coffee and spend some time together.  During one such rendezvous, Rimi asked, “What will you do after completing your studies?”

”I do not know exactly.  I will try to get a job, or I will apply to universities in USA for graduate studies!” 

Rimi was not at all happy, “Once you go to USA, you will never return here!”

“No, no, I will definitely come back!”

As the day of my departure came closer, Rimi grew increasingly unhappy. 

“Now that you will go to USA, you will forget me!” 

 “That’s not possible!  How can I forget your pretty face, the good time we have had together, I’ll come back in a year to see you for sure! Will you wait for me?”

I was kind of shy to ask her the most important question that lurked in my mind.   Rimi could sense my embarrassment; she smiled demurely to show a sign of acquiescence, but she also never replied to me in the positive.  I knew that in a year’s time, I would still be a graduate student.  It might so happen that by then Rimi’s parents would find a better suitor for her. 

A couple of days before my long journey to USA, we boarded the overnight Rajdhani Express to Delhi from Calcutta. Rimi, Banerjee uncle, and his wife came to see me off.  Rimi gave me a crisp bouquet of colorful flowers and wished me good luck in my venture to study abroad.  It seemed to me that a few tears glistened in her eyes.  I wondered, “Is she feeling sad at my departure?”

On the day of my actual departure from India, we took a cab from our hotel in Delhi in the nighttime to reach the airport.  I had never been inside an airport in my entire life.  Somehow, I figured out how to check in at the airline counter, and then to proceed towards the departure gate for my flight.  Finally, I got the chance to board an aircraft for the first time in  my life.  As I entered the plane, the air hostess showed me my seat – which was next to a window.  After about another half hour, the doors of the aircraft were closed, and the plane taxied to the runway – ready for takeoff. 

Boy, did I know that the plane would speed up on the runway at such a breakneck speed before it took off?  The first experience of it was very scary.  I had the seat belt on firmly. As I looked out of the widow, I was mesmerized by the sight of the city that I had left behind from the sky.  The distant city lights became smaller and smaller in size, as the plane lifted off the ground towards the sky.  So there I was, on my maiden flight!

In a day’s time the plane landed at JFK airport in New York, and then I took a bus to Manhattan to stay with a family friend.  The tall skyscrapers in New York amazed me.  The roads in the city were wide and well lit. The glittery cars zoomed by at high speed on those roads.  Next day with a map of Manhattan in my hand, I took a subway train to the lower end of Manhattan, and got on a ferry to visit the gargantuan Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island off the New York harbor. 

The following day I rode a bus back to the airport.  Soon I was on a flight to Denver; and thence on another short flight to Fort Collins, Colorado.  An Indian graduate student came to receive me at the local airport and drove me to a hotel for overnight stay.  Next day, I managed a ride from that same student to go to the University.  The counselor at the foreign student office suggested that I look for an off-campus apartment.  But I did not have a car; so I had to trudge on foot looking for accommodation. 

Fort Collins is a small university town in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado.  From the campus, I could look at the far-away rugged mountain peaks.  The campus buildings were spread out on a green leafy oval field.  I kept on wondering, “How could everything look so pretty and pristine here?”  The following day, I teamed up with another newly-arrived Indian graduate student to look for an apartment.  Finally, we got an apartment a few blocks away from the campus. 

My new life was interesting but challenging.  I had to learn how to shop for groceries, and then how to cook my meals. I had to do my laundry,  by myself in a washing machine, and then use a drier to dry my clothes.  Nobody told me that life would be so different from what I was used to back in India.  There was nobody to help me do my daily chores!  But I soon found out that there was even spare time left over to enjoy after doing my daily chores and graduate school work. 

On weekends I would find time to write to Rimi.  An international telephone call to India would cost an exorbitant amount of money at that time.  In my letters I wrote to Rimi, “You know, although I like my classes and my professors in the university, it is too much work at home. I have to cook, clean, wash, do every daily chore.  There is nobody to help me!  Life is a bore! ”  

“Well, you went there knowing the lifestyle in that country.   Now you would have to work hard at your studies to get good grades!”  

“But I am too lonely, when I am alone at home at the end of the day.  Will you come join me here in the future?” 

“I will really like to come join you there, but it all depends on the wishes of my parents.  You have to wait patiently for me for at least a year!”  

Initially, the letters from Rimi came twice a month; then it trickled down to once a month.  In the meantime, Rimi got busy with her college examinations in India. I thought that could be the reason she did not write so frequently anymore.   Towards the end of my first academic year in spring, I did not hear from Rimi at all.  I was worried.

Eventually, summer arrived, but I had no course-work to do then.  So, I thought of visiting India.  My family was all excited at the news of my imminent visit to Calcutta.  My parents decided to meet me at the airport.  As I came out of the arrival area of the airport with my luggage, I saw a throng of people waiting eagerly to receive their friends and family.  Among them were my spectacled parents, waving at me.  When I came outside, they hugged me, and I touched their feet to show respect.   I thought this was so different from the country where I went to study - in the middle of the night there were so many people at the airport!  Little did I know that more surprises waited for me on the next day! 

The next morning after breakfast I said to my mother, “I will visit Banerjee uncle’s house this evening.”  My mother replied, “Why? You had already missed a big function in their home recently”

“What was that?”

“You will find out when you will visit them!”

So that evening after sunset, I took a cab through the crowded thoroughfares of Calcutta to visit Banerjee uncle.  Mrs. Banerjee opened the door for me and said, “Hello Ron, How are you?  How is your stay at college?  When did you come back?”

This room, where I had met Rimi so many times in the past seemed to have a fresh coat of paint on the walls.  A bright colorful framed picture of a young couple hung on one of the walls.  The girl in that picture looked familiar to me!

“I will go get a cup of coffee for you,” said Mrs. Banerjee, and left the room. 

I noticed something different with the girl in the picture – she had the mark of vermilion in the parting of her hair.

“Did Rimi get married?”  I thought about missing her marriage function as my mother had mentioned earlier that day. Momentarily, I was shocked.  

From the distance, I could not see for sure who the girl in the picture was.  So I walked up near the wall to take a closer look at the photo.  What I saw from up-close brought a sigh of relief from me.  After all, I did not lose Rimi to somebody else!  It was a picture of Jhimi, Rimi’s elder sister, and her husband.

(Posted December 1, 2015)

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Comments received from Shipra S. on Dec 6, 2015: Enjoyed the article written by Jayashree Chatterjee.
A poignant and heartfelt narrative, I think it speaks for many of us.