Immigrant Bengalis

Vignettes of Life in Boston
Subhas Nandy

The Vagaries of New England Winter

It had snowed all night on New Year’s Eve that year.  I had parked our golden-colored Mitsubishi Galant sedan on the driveway adjacent to the house late in the afternoon before daylight faded away slowly.  The sky was covered with ominous-looking gray clouds.  Was it a harbinger of something to happen overnight?  Who would have imagined what we would see the next morning from the dormer window of our bedroom in Acton, Massachusetts?

A memorable event had happened in our lives on New Year’s Eve that year.  We had moved out of a two-bedroom apartment into a brand-new house that was built from scratch right in front of our eyes within a span of three months.  I still remember the excitement we felt almost every fall weekend while visiting our house as it was getting built.  We would take Polaroid pictures at every stage of the construction of the soon-to-be our prized possession.

It was a small New England Cape Cod house with two dormers adorning the front façade of the house.  The other bedroom was on the back side of the building.  The house had a small yard in the front, a deck at the back, and a spacious backyard bordered by an empty field.  The fresh paint on the clapboard sidings of the house was sparkling grayish blue in tint.  On the very first day we moved in, we savored the fresh smell of newly laid carpet in our bedroom.

When we looked out of our bedroom window on New Year’s Day – we saw the ground in front of our house covered with at least a foot of snow.  I then went to the other bedroom to look at the state of our car on our driveway next to our house.  It was covered all around with several inches of white fluffy snow.  The snow-laden clouds of the previous night had disappeared from the blue sky.  The bright yellow sunlight reflected off the piles of white snow, blinding our sight.

How will I go to work tomorrow?  I asked Mita. How can we move the car out of that snow pile?

We will go and clean the snow from the car.

But we do not have a shovel!  I exclaimed.

We can ask our neighbor if he will let us borrow their shovel, suggested Mita.

I went and knocked on the door of our neighbor.  Fortunately, like us, they were from India and they had moved into the neighborhood a few months before us.  

The man of the house opened the door.

Good Morning!

Hi, I am Subhash.  I just moved in next door yesterday. 

Hi, my name is Vijay, the man of the house replied.

Can I borrow a snow shovel from you?

Yeah, sure!

He led me to his garage and loaned me his shovel.  Mita and myself, we took turns in cleaning the snow off the car with a brush.  We then scraped off the snow from the front and the rear windshields.  We used our neighbor’s shovel to clean the snow around the front and back tires of the car. Then I went to start the car, which it did. But as I put the car in reverse gear, to move it out of our driveway, the tires would just keep spinning at high speed, entrenched in the snow and ice piled underneath their surfaces.  The tires would make a whirring sound but would not budge an inch! 

By that time, Vijay came out of their house, and suggested that the car would have to be towed out of the ice and snow.  Normally on a day after a snowstorm in New England, it would take a long time for the AAA tow truck to come and rescue a snow-bound car.  However, we just had to wait about an hour for the tow truck to come and rescue us from our predicament.

This incident was something memorable to me, as it made the second day of our stay at our first house eventful.  I should have parked the car inside the garage, rather than on the driveway!



Divine Intervention or What?

Daily life in Boston often felt monotonous to us.  To escape from the routine life, every couple of months, we would hit the road to visit our friends in central Connecticut, or in upstate New York. Sometimes our friends would visit us, and we would drive to Harvard Square – to enjoy the boisterous music played by the punk rock bands there. 

On a spring visit to Connecticut, we came face-to-face with a strange situation, which we had not been able to explain to ourselves.  In early June one year, we visited our friend’s house in Connecticut. Our friends prepared a sumptuous lunch for us on Sunday afternoon.  As usual, we had our lunch at a slow pace while gossiping with our friends.  It was not before late in the afternoon that we left their house.  On that afternoon, the highway was crowded with a stream of speeding cars. Getting on the highway, I drove at a steady pace in the middle lane of a three-lane Interstate. 

Suddenly, in the rear-view mirror, I saw a car speeding towards us very fast.  It came close behind our car, then swerved to the extreme left lane and overtook us at a breakneck speed.  Within a minute or so, it swerved to the right in front of us, as if that driver wanted to make a point with me: Hey, slow driver, move to the far-right lane! I felt threatened – because his car was too close in front of us.  Immediately, I pressed on the horn.  Mita questioned anxiously,

Why are you blowing the horn?

No, I just wanted to tell the driver that his car is too close in front of me! I said.

After mocking me, this driver sped away too fast; but I was stuck with a problem.  I released the pressure on the horn button on the steering wheel, but the horn would not stop blowing! 

Now what will we do? was Mita’s panicky reaction, as if I were the problem maker in this case (which I might have been).  I did not know what to do.  I pressed again and again on the horn button to release it from blowing, but it was of no avail!  And then we saw an exit sign coming up on the highway.  We were relieved and took the exit, thinking we might find a gas station.  There was a sign for a commuter parking lot, located close to the exit.  I drove the car to the lot and stopped the engine of the car, by taking the key slowly out of the ignition switch.  But still the horn would not stop blowing!  We were both perplexed, as to what to do next? 

I got out of the car, then pried open the front hood.  I thought probably I could disconnect a wire to stop the incessant blowing of the horn!  But to my dismay I could not locate a wire to disconnect.  Being not knowledgeable with the intricate workings of a car, I told Mita,

I don’t know what to do! 

I was afraid that the horn would keep blowing and would finally drain the battery.  Mita was angry at me. You should not have blown the horn at that dumb driver!  I was at my wit’s end.  Then suddenly something strange happened.  I saw a tall man approach our car from the far end of the parking lot, which was bordered by tall trees. I thought to myself, May be, he could help me? 

He came close to me and asked, What’s up? 

The horn will not stop blowing! I explained.

Let me look under the hood. The man said.

He seemed to know what he was doing.  He disconnected a wire close to the engine (which of course I did not find earlier), and right then – the horn stopped blowing!

I got your problem fixed!

He smiled and immediately walked away towards the tall trees at the other end of the parking lot, without saying another word.  We were so taken aback by the rapid pace of the events that we could not express our gratitude to the helpful man.  By then he had disappeared beyond the trees!  Who knew where he came from all of a sudden to help us in our moment of need? Why did he disappear so quickly?  Influenced by my middle-class and conservative Bengali way of thinking, on that day the idea of divine intervention played in my mind.  To this day, I have not been able to explain rationally the strange incident that happened on that day. 



Facing the Final Scenario in Cambridge

When we had moved to our first house in Acton, I had already worked at Polaroid for more than five years.   Photographic enthusiasts still used Polaroid cameras for instant gratification, although the not-too-distant steps of the digital era were tapping at Polaroid’s doorstep. Polaroid instant films used a smorgasbord of chemicals to capture the distinct colors and tints of a picture.  The company employed scientists and engineers spread throughout its research and production facilities in Cambridge and Waltham to develop new products.

I used to work with a team of scientists and engineers in a Polaroid building at Waltham, close to Route 128 around Boston.  One of my colleagues was Joe, a middle-aged Caucasian person, who had just moved into our team from Cambridge.  Mostly he used to work alone, massaging tons of imaging data with his computer.  I had heard that the manager of our team used to work with him in Cambridge, and he facilitated Joe’s move to Waltham.

One day during a team meeting, as Joe was presenting his new research findings, he suddenly stopped talking.  His teeth clenched, and saliva started oozing from his mouth.  Before he could tumble and fall, our manager came to his rescue. He and another person came from behind Joe to grasp him by his back and dragged him to an empty seat.  Somebody got a glass of water and sprayed water on him

Should we call an ambulance? Somebody asked.

Our manager replied “Do not worry.  Joe will be fine in a few minutes.”

We waited anxiously outside the meeting room for a while.  Indeed, Joe slowly regained his senses.  I did learn from my colleagues that Joe had epilepsy, and he periodically would get such seizures.  I also came to know that Joe was divorced and lived alone in an apartment close to Main Street in Cambridge.  Joe could not drive a car.  He used to take a bus from Main Street in Cambridge to Main Street in Waltham, close to Polaroid’s office

Joe worked in our team for more than a year.    One Monday morning, I saw Joe’s office was not open.  Then I got a call from Saroj, a colleague of mine, who used to work in Cambridge. 

Did you know what happened to Joe?

What?

Well, he was waiting for the bus at Main Street in Cambridge.  He had an epileptic seizure. There was nobody near him.  He lost his balance and fell head down on the concrete sidewalk.

Then what happened?

Hhe hit his head on the sidewalk so hard that he had a deep gashing wound, and he bled to death.

His wake will be held on Thursday in the evening at the funeral Hall on Main Street in Cambridge.

Are you going? I asked Saroj.

Yes, we should all go to show our respect to our colleague.

What will I do there?

We will pay our last respect to Joe there.

What do you mean?

His body will lie in a casket, and we will just pass by the side of the casket.

On Thursday, after work, I went to attend Joe’s wake at the funeral parlor.  By the time I reached the parlor on a narrow side alley off Main Street, it was crowded inside the viewing hall.  Joe’s family members and colleagues all stood in a long queue at the side of the funeral hall.  I waited at the end of the line to show Joe my respect.  Prior to that day, I had never been inside a funeral parlor in this country. 

The line slowly moved, and I walked to the front of the hall.  I could see a casket on an elevated dais at the front end of the hall.  Little did I know that a surprise was waiting for me. As the crowd paid their homage and edged past the casket, I finally saw that the casket cover was open, and the body of Joe was lying there, surrounded by flowers, as if he was sleeping peacefully.  His eyes were closed, and he had the sign of profound bliss on his face.  It was so surreal.  Had I not known the dire situation, I would have thought that Joe was alive and was just taking a nap.  I had never seen the body of a dead person from such a close distance in the past.  I thought to myself, “Is that how a person passes away – with such serenity, oblivious of what is happening around?  Is that how the end comes? And I thought the end was a struggle for some people?”

That night as I went to sleep, I kept on visualizing the calm serene face of Joe in that casket again and again.  I could not sleep peacefully.  But then I thought that it might be possible that the soul of Joe had escaped to a peaceful faraway place.



(Posted April 1, 2018)

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