Immigrant Bengalis

When I arrived at the New York harbor on a cold December morning in 1954 with my husband, I was a 24-year old housewife with two little babygirls, 18 and 6 months old. As our ship, Queen Elizabeth I, approached our destination, we were thrilled to catch the sight of the Statue of Liberty – and overwhelmed to see the blanket of white snow covering much of the landscape. For a young woman who had never been more than fifty miles away from Kolkata, here I was almost 10,000 miles away in a foreign land in the middle of a harsh winter. I had no idea what to expect or what to do in the days and months that awaited us in this new country. Little did I know at that time that instead of staying in this new country for just a few years, I would end up living here for over 58 years (and still counting)!

How did we come to the US in the early fifties when very few Indians did so in those days? To tell that story I have to give some background information. I was married to my husband, the late Nabakrishna Chaudhuri, on May 9, 1950. He was a very bright student and had stood first among the first class MSc Chemistry students from Calcutta University. He had just begun working on his PhD degree when we got married. He went on to complete his PhD degree in Organic Chemistry after our marriage. I take some pride in the fact that his research life and ambitions were not overtaken by the novelty or the demands of our “newly married” life.

When my husband (I will refer to him as Naba-da because that’s how he became known to everyone in our later years) finished his PhD in 1953 with a high-quality thesis, he wrote to Prof William Doering at Yale University, inquiring about a possible research position. Prof Doeing was kind enough to reply back, saying that although he did not have any open position in his group, he knew that a small research organization was hiring foreign scientists as research scholars. Naba-da wrote to that research organization, Hickory Hill Chemical Research Foundation, in Katonah, NY, and was promptly offered a position.  Naba-da didn’t know much about the research laboratory or the town of Katonah but that did not deter him from accepting the offer.

In due course Naba-da, my two little girls and I boarded SS Chusan, a P&O ocean liner, from Bombay and headed for London on a long voyage. SS Chusan was a big ship but we soon found a few Bengali families and established warm friendships with them. We had great time as a group: eating together, reciting poetry, singing songs, and talking endlessly as good Bengalis always do. I got sea-sick and was in bed for part of the time but my little girls were fine. So was Naba-da. He seemed immune to sea-sickness and told me time and again that it was all in my mind. Poor me! Fortunately our friends were there to take care of my little babies when I was spending some of the days in my cabin, nursing my queasy stomach.

After 21 days at sea, we arrived at the Port of Tilbury, the principal port in London. We spent two or three days in London, staying in a “rooming house” and doing the usual sightseeing. I was overwhelmed with everything I saw but was anxious about the voyage that was still ahead of us. And we were chilled to our bones because of the cold and damp of London. In those days most British homes did not have central heating. In our rooming house accommodation we had to insert coins frequently in a machine attached to our bed and then the bed was electrically heated for fixed periods of time.

For most of our Bengali shipmates, London was the ultimate destination except for one Achintya Sengupta. Like us, he was headed for the US but as a graduate student to do his PhD in the Philadelphia area. After our bit of London tourism, we embarked on SS Queen Elizabeth I –and Achintya was there! We were delighted to enjoy his company for the six days of voyage from London to New York.  This sailing was a much more pleasant experience for me than the Calcutta-to-London voyage. No sea-sickness to deal with this time! A little note about Achintya: he finished his studies in about four years and went back to a job in Bangalore. We soon lost contact with him.

We were warmly received at the New York harbor by none other than Mrs. Halsband, the owner of Hickory Hill Laboratory!  She was a very wealthy woman, and the laboratory was her self-funded dream-child. She had done her PhD under Prof Doering, and being blessed with a large fortune, had decide to set up the laboratory in her huge estate in her hometown, the little village of Katonah, NY. She drove us to her mansion in Katonah (about 40 miles north of New York City, near the town of Mount Kisco) and gave us a sumptuous lunch. She had her own chef, and a large wait staff hovered around when we were served one course after another. If I may say so without sounding immodest, I came from a very affluent family in Calcutta, and in my parents’ home I had been surrounded by an army of servants, cooks and gardeners. But I was not at all prepared for a formal lunch in this aristocratic American setting. I had never seen an array of silverware, let alone use them. There were two embarrassing moments that I still remember vividly. First came when the hostess (and Naba-da’s future boss) offered us glasses of sherry. I had no idea what it was, and I looked to my husband. He didn’t know what it was either and whispered to me, “Just go ahead. Take a couple of small sips”. I did – and felt fire burning through my inexperienced throat. The worse moment came when I mistook the “finger bowl” as the drinking cup! Nobody said anything about my embarrassing misstep, and the wait staff quietly replaced the bowl with a new one, as if nothing had happened.

We spent two years in Katonah, and I have many memories of those first two years of our life in America.

We checked into our apartment which had been pre-arranged by Hickory Hill Laboratory. We lived on the second floor of a two-story building, and a Canadian couple lived in the first floor apartment. We were pleasantly surprised to find that the apartment was fully furnished, with linens, kitchen utensils, even all kinds of food in the refrigerator! Mrs. Halsband had apologetically told us in New York that she didn’t know what we might need but she had gone ahead and arranged to put some basic staples in the fridge!

As soon as we settled down in our apartment, I turned the heat up, way up, because it was winter. Little did I know that this simple action of mine caused much discomfort to the Canadian couple living on the first floor.  But they said nothing, probably realizing that we were so new to the country that we didn’t know that our thermostat also controlled their temperature. They simply left their doors and windows open to achieve a comfortable temperature in their apartment. Those were the days of abundant and cheap energy in the US, and leaving doors and windows open in winter posed little economic hardship. And our little village had no crime to speak of, so leaving doors unlocked or even open was a very common occurrence.

In time the Canadian couple became our good friends. I spoke very little English in those days. Nevertheless we developed a communication system among ourselves. They showed items to me in shops, and through gestures, asked me if I liked the item or wanted it. In return I shook my head one way or another. Slowly I gathered courage to speak a few words, and gradually but haltingly, began to speak English.

We didn’t have a car, so the Canadian couple took us everywhere: to supermarket, to drug store, to library – everywhere. Doing grocery was a mind-boggling experience for me. I had never seen an American supermarket before. The fact that I could pick up all kinds of items from the store shelves, examine them as much as I wanted, and then casually put them in my cart was a totally new experience for me. Finding everyday-Indian spices like turmeric, coriander or cumin powder was unthinkable. The only thing that was remotely useful as an all-purpose spice was the strange concoction called “curry powder”. That’s what I used to cook with, and the results of my cooking were, frankly speaking, pitiful. I had never cooked while I was in India, and now I was cooking with this thing called curry powder! But Naba-da, and even the kids as they grew up, ate my home-cooked Indian meals without complaints. It is somewhat amusing to think now that the few dishes I cooked those days took me the better part of my day. I can probably prepare the same dishes today in less than an hour.

We had a radio but no TV. I spent days in my apartment, cooking, cleaning, taking care of my little girls and waiting for Naba-da to return home. He was a dedicated researcher, and he would come home pretty late. I had no friends to speak of (other than the Canadian lady downstairs), so my days were very lonesome. After the excitement of setting up household in a foreign country passed and I got used to the novelties of America, the burden of loneliness began to be overwhelming.

As Naba-da got to know Hickory Hill Laboratory well, he realized that the place was basically staffed with foreign scientists. There were research scholars from Germany, Australia and other distant countries but no American scientists.  Naba-da began to understand that the boss, Mrs. Halsband was a very practical businesswoman, and she had intentionally hired foreign researchers because they were willing to accept lower pay than their American counterparts.

In those days seeing people from India were truly rare in America, and we were the subjects of much curiosity but also of courtesy, honesty and generosity. Remember: we are talking about America as it was almost 60 years ago. During the two years we spent in the village of Katonah, I don’t think we saw any other Indian family. I used to wear sari and braid my long hair into a single strand, and people in the street used to look at me with curiosity and admiration. We were so unusual for our little village that the local newspaper featured several stories about us, highlighting the fact that we are a family from India with advanced technical degree, young wife, little kids, etc.

I would like to end my recollections with a little episode about the honesty and courtesy of small town Americans of that period. Soon after our arrival in Katonah, our Canadian neighbors took us to the local hardware store where I bought a laundry basket. Several weeks later I went there for something else, and the store owner came rushing to me: “Ma’am, I am sorry but I overcharged $0.50 for the laundry basket you bought when you were here last time”. He insisted that I accept the $0.50 (which was indeed a fair amount of money those days) – and I took it, totally spellbound by the storeowner’s honesty and courtesy. We were the only Indian family in town, so it was easy for him to remember us. But it was also easy for him to ignore the little overcharge and go his merry way. But he didn’t – and I still remember him for this extraordinary act after 58 long years.

A couple of months before the second anniversary of our arrival in the US, we left Katonah and moved to Madison, Wisconsin. Naba-da had accepted a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Wisconsin there, and we began the second chapter of our life in the US. That chapter was much more enjoyable than our days in Katonah for many reasons. Madison was a large city, the university was a great place for Naba-da, and we found many Indians in the university community including several Bengali students. We started having a social life and I began to smile again.

(Posted on February 20, 2013)

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1954-1956: Two Years in the Village of Katonah, NY

As Told by Haimonti Chaudhuri to Debajyoti Chatterji