Untold Stories, Forgotten Lives
Alak Basu

 Immigrant Bengalis


 

During the British rule in India some Indians, notably Bengalis from the affluent class, went to the UK to pursue higher education and become doctors, lawyers or civil servants upon their return to India. While many went to study the sciences and later join academia or research, interestingly only a handful sought to be engineers. This practice of going to the UK began to change in the 1950s and 1960s as Indian students and scholars began to trickle into American universities. Then in 1968 President Johnson signed into law a new immigration and naturalization act – and that opened the floodgate for immigration to qualified professionals from India and other parts of Asia. At that time, the job market in India for scientists, engineers, doctors and other professionals was awful, and thousands of Indians with  technical degrees and some job experience could apply for – and get – “permanent resident” visas (or “green cards”) to the US within three to six months of application.

For some of these applicants immigration to the US was a career necessity, and for others it became a fashionable thing to do. As visas were given without much hassle, fresh graduates, even people with no jobs or those who were working in substandard positions, availed themselves the opportunity to come to the “land of opportunities”. Many individuals in well-paid jobs in large corporations in India got caught up in this craze. Unfortunately some came without any sponsors or relatives to support them financially or emotionally, until they found their footing in the new country. Before coming to America, no clear picture was available to them from any source about the nature and the condition of the job market in the US at that time.

I knew three individuals from my neighborhood of Calcutta for whom things did not work out as planned, May be they made the wrong decisions, may be they were at the wrong place at the wrong time, may be they were victims of bad luck. May be they had the wrong professional backgrounds for the opportunities in front of them. No matter what, their dreams did not materialize and their lives took very unfortunate turns.

*****

Let me begin with the story of a good friend of mine named Narroo.  He had graduated from IIT-Kharagpur (Civil Engineering, 1962) and was a very ambitious fellow. He married a girl from a rich family in our neighborhood right after his graduation.  It was an odd love story. For someone from a lower middle class family background it was a story-book love affair and marriage. Narroo was a very ambitious individual with a tremendous amount of self confidence. Unfortunately there was a bit of unhappiness in his marriage. With a marketing job in Esso, Narroo's income was not enough for the high society life style he and his wife had envisioned during their college years. He quit his Esso job and began a private consulting career but that also failed.  He felt that he had no choice but to leave for the UK to fulfill his career ambitions and mend his troubled marriage. In two years' time, he immigrated to the US, hoping for better luck here. After a while he ended up in a southern city. He settled there comfortably as a middle class citizen of America as a Professional Engineer (PE). He did not pursue any higher degrees as things were going alright in job and life.  I visited him occasionally and stayed in his house for a few days at a time. I had known both of them very well from my childhood.  He was enjoying a decent middle class lifestyle as an engineer with a medium size house in the south.

Then came the greed for more money and the desire for a better lifestyle.

Narroo got into the restaurant business with a few friends who were all engineers and scientists by background. None of them had any business background whatsoever. In the process he borrowed money from different sources, including friends, and invested all the money in his restaurant business.  First he opened a small eatery in the city where he lived, and he and his family took care of the business.  A couple of years later, he opened a huge restaurant (named after an important city of Bengal) in a prestigious location in New York City with full bar facilities. It was in the heart of Manhattan. I visited with my wife and had many meals there. I wondered how he could manage such a large establishment with limited funds of his own.

Restaurant business can be tough and nasty, especially in a big city where organized crime maintains a strong grip and the city bureaucracy keeps a strict vigil on code violations. Probably for those reasons, Narroo had to close his NYC business after a few months and retreat to the small restaurant in his home town in the south. This was a major financial blow for Narroo from which he could not recover. That modest eatery did not have enough earnings to meet the family's financial needs, and Narroo had to shutter it and look for a job. He started losing confidence in himself. He stopped contacting me as he felt utterly frustrated in life.  His two daughters grew up and got married but they did not do well financially. They all  stayed together in the same house. It was a large family set-up for a three-bedroom house. In the meantime the fortunes of their families back in India declined but Narroo could not provide any help, nor could he invite them to visit America. Eventually Narroo and his wife had a number of health problems which went unattended for financial reasons. They both died in the nineties when they were only about 50 years old. With them died the dreams of success and good life for a hardworking immigrant Bengali couple.

*****

Let me now move on to the story of Samir, another friend who came to the US at about the same time as I did. He was from my neighborhood in Kolkata where his parents had built a beautiful home. His father was a well-respected professor at Calcutta University and his was a well-educated, well-traveled family. After finishing his Senior Cambridge examinations, he studied Mechanical Engineering at the Guindy College of Engineering in Madras (now Chennai) and graduated in 1960. Engineering was a hot field in India at that time, and graduates in civil, mechanical and electrical engineering found ready employment in multinational companies. As a Civil/Structural Engineer, I had found a job at Martin Burns Ltd, a well-known British construction and engineering company, and Samir also joined this company, although in a different department. He later moved to Larsen & Toubro, another well-known engineering firm.

I enjoyed my work at Martin Burns and was rewarded well by the company. In 1967 our company received a very large contract for the design, construction and installation of two Reforming Furnaces for a major fertilizer plant in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh. I was probably the right person at the right place when this contract came in, and the company sent me to the UK for one year of intensive training in design engineering and construction activities. Upon my return I found myself promoted to a higher position with greater benefits and pay.

Samir's parents were also keen to see their son go abroad and move up his career ladder. His sister had already gone to England for her PhD (she later divorced her Bengali husband, married an Englishman and moved to the US), so Samir's going abroad was viewed by the family as inevitable. He just had to wait for the right opportunity to come along. In time Samir married a beautiful girl from an affluent family, became a good father and a good husband, and got used to a good life. He drove a fancy foreign car (a Studebaker Commander), ate in pricey restaurants and waited for an opportunity to go abroad.

As soon as the door for immigration to the US opened Samir was the first one among us to rush to the American Consulate in Calcutta for a visa. We learned about his plans to go to America only after his visa application was approved. We also learned that he had immediately signed up for dancing lessons after work hours!  Soon he resigned from his job at Larsen & Toubro and boarded a flight to New York. He stayed with his sister for a while in Connecticut and then moved to the infamous Clinton Arms hotel in New York City where many a Bengali immigrant had to stay until they found jobs and earned enough to be able to afford a better place. After a few months I received a letter from him advising me not to come to USA because of the difficulties and frustrations he was experiencing in America. 

 In New York City Samir tried desperately to get a job as a mechanical engineer. He had no success for almost one full year.  He then started doing odd jobs to eke out a living. Finally he was forced to accept the position of a telephone company technician. Although this was a job far below his education and experience levels, the pay was reasonable and lots of overtime were available for people who wanted to work extra hours. He was living in a dump in Brooklyn where many of the other tenants were drug addicts, and his constant companions were cockroaches and rats. Yet at the insistence of his parents, he had to bring his wife and his child from India to the US

 After almost three years of subsistent living, Samir got a job with one of the petrochemical companies in New Jersey as a junior engineer and moved to an apartment in the Bloomfield area. Unfortunately he could not hold onto that job for long, and in the following years, he changed jobs several times. He finally bought a house in Dover, NJ. In the winter of1980 my wife and I came from Houston, Texas, to visit him and his family. We stayed in his house for a few days with our newborn daughter. I was a bit worried one night when I found that the thermostat in his house was set at 56 degree F. It was very cold that night and I asked him for more blankets. I mention this only to highlight the precarious financial position he was in after buying a house and carrying all the costs of home ownership. Gone were the dreams of ballroom dancing, eating out at pricey restaurants and driving fancy cars. However, Samir was a strong-minded individual with a good sense of humor, and he adjusted to the life he had been dealt with. We stayed in contact but our lives were busy with jobs, children and other responsibilities.

Suddenly, in 1992, came a shocking news: Samir had a massive heart attack after coming home from work – and died before an ambulance could arrive. He was living in Massachusetts at that time. There had been no early warning signs, his wife told me. Nobody knew what the underlying cause was behind his heart attack. May be it was the stress from his job – and the never-ending struggles in his life. I visited the family later, and looking at his wife and children, I felt a deep sense of loss. Samir and I were very close friends and I had known him for years. Although we lived in different states, we shared all kinds of secrets between us. His untimely death left a big void in my heart. He was only in his early fifties at that time.                                                                                                                                                                
                                                                          *****

The third gentleman, Bobby, was more of an acquaintance than a friend. He had graduated from IIT-Kharagpur in 1959 and was a few years senior to me in age. He had moved into our neighborhood with his unmarried sister and his uncle who was a bachelor. His parents had died when he and his sister were very young, and his uncle had raised them. They were Bengalis from Assam, and while they maintained a certain distance from the neighbors, they were well liked. Bobby joined in games of badminton and volleyball with neighbors and had a likeable personality. After graduating, he joined Larsen & Toubro as an engineer. I met him there during my frequent business-related visits. He was a senior engineer and highly regarded by his colleagues. At work he mostly socialized with men of his age, and as a westernized individual, his friends at work were of similar taste. I saw him in various company socials but did not establish a strong friendship as he was a bit older than me.               

Bobby and two of his friends from Larsen & Toubro applied for American visas in 1970 and the three left together for the US soon after they received their “green cards”. I was surprised that Bobby had decided to quit a high position in India at the age of 35 or so and embark on a journey of uncertainty. When I arrived in New York in 1971, I tried to contact him but did not succeed for quite a while. This is what I heard from others who had been in touch with him.

Immediately after his arrival in New York, Bobby stayed with some friends in Brooklyn. He struggled to find a good job, like hundreds of other Indian engineers who had arrived around that time in New York with immigrant visas. Apparently he moved to an apartment of his own, also in Brooklyn, probably after finding a reasonable job. He did not socialize much with other Bengali immigrants except with a handful of friends from Larsen & Toubro. These were  the glimpses of his life that I gathered over time from my interactions with  his narrow circle of friends.
 
As I mentioned before, Bobby was a westernized young man. He was single, about 35 years old and in good health, and he began dating Caucasian women. He was a level-headed, practical man, and he continued to rent apartments and not fall for the attractions of buying a 
home and maintaining it. He changed jobs several times, so not buying a property was probably the right decision for him. Bobby led the life of a loner and spent most of his time with his girlfriends. If Bobby married any of them, he never shared that news with his friends. With time his interactions with his Larsen & Toubro friends diminished significantly. 

Unfortunately, a tragic end was waiting silently for Bobby. In the mid-1980s, Bobby had a sudden and acute heart attack and died. He was in his forties and visibly in good health. The news of his death reached me many months later, and when I tried to find more about his last days and months, I hit a dead end. None of his earlier friends had visited him for years – and they did not know if any girlfriend or relative was at Bobby's side when he breathed his last. I kept wondering: did he die alone in America, his adopted homeland? When I visited Calcutta later, I inquired about his uncle but he had moved away from our neighborhood and no one knew of his whereabouts. To this date, I feel an emptiness inside of me when I think of Bobby and how he may have felt on his last day on earth, thousands of miles away from his birthplace – and miles to go to the happy place in America that he had dreamed of in his youth.

 

(Posted April 1, 2015)

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