Immigrant Bengalis

I have often been drawn into tumultuous debates in a Bangali get-together about the relative merits of East Bengal versus Mohun Bagan, Uttamversus Soumitra, Satyajit versus Ritwick, Shyam Bazar versus Ballygunge ….. and the list is endless. Neither party to this debate is willing to give in an iota. I believe the debates will continue way into the future. Fortunately, there is one issue that we Bangalis come together and agree upon. It is about the unparallel presentation of Birendra Kishore Bhadra reciting the Mahishasura Mardini to mark Mahalaya on All India Radio. Each of us harbor a memory of a special feeling, when huddled under a blanket before the break of dawn, we heard that wonderful voice recounting the story of Ma Durga, the triumph of good over evil. The recitation of Birendra Kishore has stayed with us; it takes us back to a special moment in our lives.

On our first weekend in New Haven, Helen and I went for a walk to the campus of Yale University. The beautiful Gothic architecture on campus took our breath away. Yale is the very picture of a college campus that we are shown in Hollywood movies. As we ambled along, out of nowhere, the angelic voice of a bell canto soprano floated to our ears. There was no accompanying music. The heavenly voice held us spell bound. Afraid to disturb the beautiful sound, we tip-toed around trying to find the source of the voice.

I finally spotted her. She was no more than a freshman, perhaps a sophomore. She had on a plain white T-shirt. She stood on a small balcony of Davenport College and was singing to no one in particular. Her song finished, she ducked back into her dorm room. Helen and I stood staring at each other, not knowing what to say.

I should digress a bit and explain the cause of my bewilderment. Since my arrival in the US almost a decade earlier, I had lived, studied and worked in the south-western part of the country. As they say, we ate barbeque, drank beer, strummed on a guitar and sang country western songs about slow horses and fast women. In the quadrangle at Yale I heard my first operatic aria. I knew I was crossing a line in the sand. It was a pivotal moment in my life.

I slid into the job of news photographer at WTNH-TV in New Haven without missing a beat. I was familiar with the technology and, by now, well versed with most facets of the job. What I had to get used to was the change in scale of the events I covered. For the first time since my arrival in the US, I was coming face to face with people I had only read about in newspapers or seen on TV. This was the America with a colonial past and roots in Europe. This was the America with history, tradition and influence.

Saturday mornings, most photographers at TV stations are assigned to attend a local political event or a parade on Main Street in some little town. Very low in news value, these photo journals build strong audience base for the station. Once the parade is over, people in small towns run back home to see themselves on the six o’clock news. We generate our own captive audience.

Unlike the small towns in Texas and Oklahoma where the high school homecoming queens lead the parade, in New Britain, Connecticut, a very young Caroline Kennedy was the parade marshal. As part of the ‘soft news’ segment, I shot an interview at the Hartford mall with the great siren from the forties, Betty Davis, making her rounds on a book signing tour. At a ribbon cutting ceremony at the submarine facility at Groton, the chief guest was the former director of the CIA, George H. Bush. In a swing through Connecticut, President Jimmy Carter stopped by our station for a brief interview on the 12 o’clock news.

Tom called me to his office one evening and I knew he had a trick up his sleeve. He told me of a special assignment he had lined up for us. Tom had got permission from the Mayor’s Office for the reporter, Bob Norman, and I to live at a fire station for five days. The goal was to do an in-depth report on the lives of the firemen for the city of New Haven.

I was very excited as I moved into the fire house with Bob. At last I was being given an opportunity to do an in-depth report that would require all my film making knowledge and skills. I was determined that the result of my work would be a mini feature film, shown in five parts. We were told by the fire chief to be ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice. I had visions of speeding down the streets with siren blazing. My adrenaline was pumping.

We waited all day at the fire station, ready to jump. Unfortunately, nothing happened.

The next day was a repeat of the first. No action at all. I could not honestly express my disappointment in the open, as ‘no news’ is good news where fires are concerned. I was quite bored.

An unknown aspect of the firefighting job became apparent to me. The fire fighters live in the fire station. This is their home away from home. A large part of their day is spent in tending to their ‘home’. They clean the floors, the bathrooms, do the laundry and above all, they cook for themselves. As an ongoing tradition, fire houses all over the United States serve excellent meals.

By the end of the third day, I wanted to call Tom and tell him that perhaps we had made a bad choice in a subject for the five part series. I put Bob up to the task. Tom told us to hang around a bit longer. To pass the time and to justify the time we had spent at the fire station, we shot some interviews of the firemen.

Almost to the last man, the stories the firemen told us about themselves and their job were funny. Some of the stories were a bit quirky. For a group of men who risked their own lives on a daily basis on the job, there was not a single story of personal bravery or glory. I went to bed that night thinking that at least we have a set of funny stories on tape to show for our time.

The siren did go off a little after midnight and startled me out of my sleep. Just like the movies, the firemen grabbed the brass pole and slid down the hole in the floor. By the time Bob and I could get into our news car with our cameras, the fire trucks were speeding down the road. We gave close chase.

An apartment building in West Haven was ablaze. Flames were shooting out of the windows. There were scores of panicked people running helter-skelter all over the neighborhood. Men were screaming the names of the children as they ran about looking for their sons and daughters. Women in house coats were sitting on the pavement, their arms locked around their young ones, often wailing out the name of Jesus and the Blessed Mother Mary. It was utter chaos.

Unperturbed, the firemen methodically slipped into their protective gear. Pulling their hoses with them, they stepped into the burning building and let loose torrents of water. With the firemen showing us the way, Bob and I stepped into the building right behind them, the tape rolling in my camera. I noticed a fireman breaking the walls with a pick axe, going deeper into the burning building, looking for trapped people. The job of fire fighting is doubly dangerous as along with the possibility of being burnt, the thick smoke surrounding you from all sides can suffocate you.

Suddenly there was a loud explosion. Debris landed all around us. Bob tapped me on the shoulder and screamed, ‘Satya, let’s get out’.

I turned around to follow him and saw through the camera, sprays of water shooting in from both side of the passage. For the life of me, I could not allow the water to damage my video camera. So I stopped and waited where I stood as Bob shot ahead.

Once outside the building, Bob must have sensed I was not with him. He stopped, turned around and waved frantically to me to get out. I was only a skinny little boy from Calcutta, living my dream of making movies. I would not let water damage my camera and lose the footage I had captured. Flames licked the air from both sides of the passageway. I stood my ground and let the tape roll on. Through the smoke, I could see Bob screaming ‘Satya, get out, get the hell out’.

The fire captain must have sensed what was going on. He signaled his men. The torrents of water subsided for a moment. I ran toward safety and out of the burning building.

Tom called me early next morning. He asked me if I felt we had enough footage to make a five part series. I answered yes and we went back to the station. I was given the rest of the day off.

The five part series was a hit! It was not the video of the firemen in a burning building doing their dangerous job that became the focus of the series. It was the fire fighting footage interspaced with screaming women with their arms around their children that moved people. On a calmer side of the story, our audience was moved by the snapshots of children coming to see their fathers at the fire station for help with their homework. The funny stories that the firemen told us earlier took on a new meaning in the context of the danger the men faced every day.

But above all, it was the video of Bob Norman screaming for his cameraman to get out of a burning building that held everybody spellbound. Why was the cameraman not moving the audience wondered?  The audience at home could see and hear Bob pleading in earnest and the camera rolls on till the captain redirects the streams of water. That shot became the wild card in the fire series. People saw what it is like to be on the inside when fire and smoke engulfs a person trapped in a burning building. All of Connecticut saw the fire series on the news and talked about the video.

As a TV newsman, it was my job to photograph people of note but I lived my life quite unnoticed. Following the airing of the fire series, unexpectedly, I was being noticed. People knew my name. The girl at Dunkin Donuts said that the coffee was ‘on the house’. At the York Square Cinema, the manager Arnold Gorlich let Helen and me see the films for free.

The power of the media was making itself felt in our lives in more ways than one. Helen was interviewed on radio, pitching the need for volunteers at the soup kitchen she ran at the Yale Divinity School. Responding to the interview on radio, people came out of nowhere. In no time, the soup kitchen was fully staffed. As the circle of our influence grew so did out aspiration. We quietly slipped into New York City as folks from the hinterland often do and took in the sights. Of all the things that impressed us was the availability of Indian food. We ate heartily at Curry-In-A- Hurry on Lexington and 29th and congratulated ourselves on our find. Hard as it is to imagine today, finding an Indian restaurant in 1980 was a red letter day.

I continued to be challenged by the job in ways I had not expected. Late one evening as I was getting off work around 11 pm, the assignment editor asked me to pick up a little footage from a small airport down the street in Bridgeport. Jack Anderson was an independent candidate for the presidency and was making quite a mark for himself. He was making an unscheduled stop in the area. Though not vitally important, it was still considered a newsworthy event and we had to have the pictures.

The little airport was dark and quite deserted when I arrived. Other photographers and a couple of reporters arrived shortly. A few secret service men in fine cut suits waited on the tarmac, occasionally speaking into the walkie-talkies tucked in their coat sleeves. The coffee shop in the general aviation building was definitely closed and we were eager to go home at our earliest.

We perked up a bit as we heard the plane overhead. It made a wide turn and came into the glide slope. We fired up our cameras and waited for the plane, a small Lear Jet, to pull up to the general aviation building.

Once on the ground, the plane rolled way past us. I guessed the pilot had not seen us waiting. He taxied almost to the other side of the airport, quite far away from us. I could see Jack Anderson with his mop of thick white hair getting off the small jet and walking towards a nearby car. We ran double speed and caught up with him.

The man with the white mop looked at us rather bemused. He was not Jack Anderson at all! He walked to the waiting car and drove off.

Sure enough, Jack Anderson came in a few minutes later on another plane and we interviewed him. After Anderson left I cornered one of the secret service agents. I remembered that the Secret Service agents had not come forward to surround the man who had got off the first jet.

The agent had a knowing look on his face. He smiled and told me that I should look very carefully when I see important politicians from a distance. As Bridgeport, CT was an unscheduled stop for Jack Anderson, the Secret Service had not had enough time to scope out the area for possible assassination attempts. Hence, a ‘stand in’ for Jack Anderson was flown in, to draw out the possible fire, if any.

My parents had not been able to attend our wedding but came to spend a few weeks with us. My father was thrilled to see my library, stocked full with books about art. Each day after I left for work, he poured over the Life-Time Art History series. Over dinner he would ask me to expound on the finer points of what I saw in the works of the great artists.

One Saturday morning, Helen took my parents to attend a parade by the New Haven green. I too was assigned to cover the same parade. Spotting my parents among the crowd, I shot their picture and included them in the report. That evening, my parents saw themselves on the 6 O’clock news.

When I came home from work, my parents could hardly contain their enthusiasm. They took great pride I was in a position to include my parents in the TV news. I recalled that in the late fifties, my father had travelled to the USSR as part of a scientific delegation. Their departure from Palam Airport was filmed and shown as part of the Indian News Review at Prachi Cinema. Our entire family went to Prachi several times, just to see the Indian News Review. The colorful Hispanic parade in New Haven was no less important to us now.

I asked my father if he was aware that as a child I had an artistic inclination. He nodded in the affirmative. He also added quickly that in India one needed clout to move up. His influence was in the scientific world. He said, he never encouraged my artistic growth as he did not know where to place me if I excelled in that direction.

Late that night, my father came to our bed room door and knocked gently. Fearing a medical emergency, I jumped up with a start and bolted out. He was quite calm and asked me to join him in the living room.

My father sat pensive for a while then spoke very softly. ‘When I was a child’, he began, ‘I used to study the tabla with my uncle’.

Seeing some promise in his nephew, the uncle promised my father a visit with his Guru. One fine evening, his uncle took my father to a Baiji Bari in North Calcutta. My father was suitably impressed with the performance of the Guru as he accompanied the musicians and the dancing girls. At the end of the evening, my father noticed the Guru fawning over the Zamindar patrons. The intoxicated Zamindars, happy at his performance, handed some money to the Guru in their usual cavalier fashion. The Guru bowed deeply with folded hands.

My father looked me in the eye and continued, ‘I did not want you to have to flatter rich patrons and bow to their whims for your livelihood. In science, you can hold your head up high, based on your own accomplishments. There is no cult of personality.’

I started to understand my father’s perspective in greater depth and be appreciative of his point of view.

‘The world has changed quite a bit since I was a boy. There is a respectable place for the arts now.’ He got up and went back to his room.

The world has indeed changed and the influence of the media has become a way of life for us. To my parents the change was new and was noteworthy.

My father woke up early one morning and positioned himself in front of the TV. He sat glued to the set, watching the ‘live’ broadcast of the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Di. My father was born in 1912, the year George the 5th had visited Calcutta. His childhood was marked by fairy tales of the King and Queen in far away London. I could tell my father felt he was present at Westminster Abbey, attending the wedding of the Prince and Princess. This was the real fairy tale of our time, thanks to the technology of media.

My notoriety helped me slide comfortably into favored positions. I joined the Art Atelier at Yale and attended classes on Saturday mornings. At the Yale Repertory Theater I attended lectures by James Earl Jones. Soon my friend Arnold from the York Square Theater arranged for me to be an observer on the sets of a major Hollywood production that was being filmed off the coast of New Haven.

This was my first exposure to a Hollywood production. A young actor who had made a name for himself on TV as a comic was cast in the film. He walked up to me and introduced himself as Robin Williams. The film was called ‘The World According to Garp’. Robin Williams was extremely shy and before each scene, he would walk away from the set and rehearse his lines endlessly before coming back in for the take.

Looking back on a time when we were all quite young, I have to admit Robin Williams was hardly the person who impressed me. My wildest expectations were met when I met the director, George Roy Hill.

George Roy Hill was the ultimate artist I had aspired to be. As a young man, Hill had studied music at Yale under Paul Hindemith. During World War II, he trained as a fighter pilot and saw action in the South Pacific. My professor in film school, Dr. Mackie had told me, a great film director was both a poet and a soldier.  George Roy Hill was both Robert Frost and Douglas MacArthur rolled into one. My personal connection to him was in the simple fact I had seen his film “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” when the renovated Globe Cinema opposite the New Market had reopened. Mr. Hill rolled over with laughter when I told him about ‘black market’ ticket prices for his film in Calcutta; they were sold for twice their face value. The film, an international hit, had propelled Robert Redford to stardom!

The constant exposure to fame also breeds a kind of callousness and I was certainly guilty of such hubris. Late one afternoon, the assignment editor asked me to run over to Woolsey Hall at Yale and shoot a short clip of a pianist who was scheduled to play that evening. As a public service to the local community, our channel carried short clips of local events at the tail end of the news.

When I arrived, I guessed that the old man and his PR woman had been waiting for me for quite some time. I too was frustrated as I also had had a long day. The old man asked me if there was something in particular I would like him to play. I put the camera on the tripod and rolled the tape. I suggested a Chopin piece that was my favorite and eased back and sat down to rest.

The man played effortlessly. I was being given a private concert! I said a few words of encouragement to the old man and left. He thanked me for my advice.

It was only on the 6 O’clock news that I came to know that the old man playing the piano for my camera, for whom I had some encouraging words, was none other than Vladimir Horowitz, the greatest living pianist of the twentieth century.

It was not only the well-known celebrities who made a lasting impression on me. Late one evening, as I was on my way out of the TV station, I spotted a fellow photographer in one of the edit booths. Monica asked me to look at a short piece she had edited. I was quite tired after a long day of work and was hardly in a mood to look at another TV screen.

I was stunned by what I saw and heard. The sound track grabbed me. The pictures had a different kind of energy and jumped all over the screen. Monica was telling a story alright but it was not being told in the narrative tradition. It was only visual and sound impulses from the screen that led the audience forward. I was wide awake now; I did not know what to make of Monica’s work.

Monica smiled mischievously. ‘Don’t worry,’ she said. ‘I am leaving the news department here. I will be joining a music television station in New York.’

I did not know what Monica was talking about. That evening was my first exposure to MTV. Monica Thompson was a pioneer in the field.

The summer passed very quickly and it was time for my parents to return to Calcutta. Their presence in our lives had made an enormous impact on us. As the date for their departure approached, Helen walked around the house with a sour face. Like a truant child, she begged my parents to stay on with us. As a parting gift, I told my father that the Provost at Yale had asked me to join the Ph.D. program. I expected him to be filled with pride at my accomplishment.

Quite on the contrary, he was taken aback. ‘I did not know you want to teach,’ he replied.

‘I don’t,’ I told him.

‘Then why are you getting a Ph.D. degree?’ he asked.

Coming from an academic and Bhodrolok background, I had presumed that getting a Ph.D. was the natural thing to do. I had never questioned that presumption.

‘If you were a student in the field of physics or mathematics, getting a Ph.D. is the right path. Physics and mathematics belongs in the university. You are an artist. Knowledge is only a small part of that experience.’

I was stunned by what my father was saying. My father’s life had revolved around guiding Ph. D. students. He was rejecting that very path for me.

He smiled and added, ‘In the world of art, those who can…’

I looked at my father with a sense of disbelief. All my life I had been living in the shadow of a great man. He was releasing me. This moment on, I was free to float on my own dreams.

My parents returned to India. My father passed away within a few short weeks. The overwhelming sorrow of losing my best friend stayed with me through the winter.

Early in the spring I noticed that the stream by our house was starting to thaw. As I sat down to dinner, Helen asked me if I knew a guy called Ron Tarasoff. I claimed ignorance.

Helen said, ‘The guy called this morning. He wants you to call him back at your earliest convenience. He said, he saw a copy of your Fire series. I guess, you have a fan out there.’ She gave me his number.

I called next morning. The operator who answered the phone had a beautiful voice. She sang out, “CBS television. How can I direct your call?’

(Posted February 1, 2015)

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Those Who Can … … Do
Sketches from “My Life in the Media” #7

Satya Jeet