Immigrant Bengalis

Days and Nights in Cambridge, Massachusetts:
Waiting to Exhale

Rahul Ray

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In the early to mid-1980s, Swapna and I lived in Walden Square Apartments, a ten-story high-rise building close to Porter Square in North Cambridge, MA. It was a rent-controlled housing project for people with low income, and a magnet for people of color from the US and various African countries. Mysteriously, a large number of Bengalis also lived in that building. We fondly called our Walden Square-home "Bangali-tola" which roughly translates as a place with a large Bengali population but with a not-so-pleasant connotation. 

Before moving to Massachusetts we lived in the state of Washington, where I obtained my PhD from a state university.  I always wanted to have an academic career.  Therefore, long before I completed my degree, I had sent out applications for a postdoctoral trainee position at prestigious universities across the country, and when I got an offer from a lab in MIT, I jumped at the opportunity.  But little did I know that the fellowship that I was offered was barely enough to make both ends meet in the Boston-area.  Thus, when Ajay-da -- whom we came to know through our back-home college friend Asraf Ali, and who himself was a postdoctoral fellow at MIT, quickly managed to get us a low-rent, one bedroom apartment in Walden Square, we breathed a big sigh of relief.  Ajay-da also lived in the same tenement with his wife and their new-born daughter.

Soon we discovered that many Bengali students and postdocs lived in our building.  Amit, a graduate student at MIT, was our next-door neighbor.  Later on Kamal, a postdoc at Tufts, joined in.  Thakohari-da and his wife, Bani-di, postdocs at MIT and Massachusetts General Hospital respectively, lived on the seventh floor.  There were also others, whom we knew only by their faces.  Curiously no Bangladeshis lived in our building; instead they preferred to live in a large housing project in the nearby Rindge Avenue area. 

 

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Prior to moving to Boston we never lived in a multi-story apartment, but soon became accustomed to the essentials of living in a high-rise building-- such as living among so many people, or taking the elevator up and down as a necessity.  But one thing that we never could get used to was the menace of roach-infestation in the building.  Those little brown pests were everywhere in the kitchen.  We cleaned and cleaned everything, but if we went to the kitchen at night for a glass of water or a late night snack, we would find these little creatures crawling all over!  Every month there was a pest-extermination day when we had to get everything out of the kitchen cabinets, and make a huge mound in the living room, covered with a plastic sheet.  Yet these creatures crawled back almost right after the smell of the chemical faded away.  We only hoped that these roaches would be happy staying in the kitchen and not venture into other rooms. 

The main source of the roach-infestation was the garbage-chute that ran along one side of the elevators.  The area around the chute was always strewn with trash and gave out a putrid smell, particularly on hot summer days.  On one of these occasions of taking out trash, I noticed that a black object was lying on the ground.  Upon close inspection I found that it was the  statuette of a woman, about two feet in height, except that it was headless.  I found the head not far from the torso.  I picked up both the pieces and brought them home.

It was a plaster of Paris model of a young African woman, and a nude study of superb artistry and beauty.   The young lady sat impassively with her eyes closed, in a posture that reminded me of Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘mermaid’.  Her one hand was tucked behind, baring her perfectly shaped breasts.  Except, unlike the ‘mermaid’, the other hand pointed upwards, and there was only a broken stump where the hand should have been.  Also, the head was severed from the body. In the broken head-piece remnants of the palm and fingers, along with a short segment of the broken arm were attached to the skull, but the rest was missing.  I painstakingly chiseled out the remainder of the arm from the head with a pen knife, cleaned up the stump, glued the head back to the torso and re-painted the figurine black.

The young lady came back to life with all her beauty and innate sexuality.  It was so pleasantly shocking that we felt that she needed a special treatment, and we bought her a cheap marble-top pedestal with a golden metal leg to sit on.  The figurine became a part of our household. 

In Bengali tradition we never call anyone older than us by their first names, and that tradition continued among us in America.  Thus, a woman of approximately one’s mother’s age or stature would be called ‘masi’ or mother’s sister, which would be added at the end of her first name.  Thus our sons grew up calling the figurine ‘Kalo masi’ or ‘black auntie’, as if she had been immobilized by a sorcerer’s spell, and would soon walk out from her seat as a real person.

 

So many Bengalis and other Indians lived in our building that the hallways and elevators always smelled of Indian food. During the winter when wecouldn't open the windows, all of our clothing gave out a very aromatic and spicy odor. In contrast, on late summer days, the heat in the top floors used to be unbearable, and many of us kept our windows open. In the evening, the aroma of Indian cooking would waft from the kitchen windows below us. I would slide the insect-screen open and crane my neck outside the window and shout: "O Bani-di, khub valo gondho beriyechhe. Ki runna hochhay? Khete jabo naki? [Hello Bani-di, what are you cooking? Smells delicious. Should we come down for a treat?]" 

Soon we made acquaintances with people other than Bengalis and Indians who lived in our building.  Dimitria, a pretty lady from Kenya, lived right across from our apartment.  She was a tall and dark woman with an Angela Davis-Afro and an ever-smiling face.  Some days when I met her in the hallway, I would ask her “Dimitria, how are you?" She would give me a smile from one end of the cheek to the other that would lighten my entire day.   Her husband was from Eritrea, in the horn of Africa.  He was of medium build with a slight paunch in the middle part of the body.  With his slightly curly hair and light complexion, he looked more like a person from Southeast Asia than Africa.  He always walked around with downcast eyes and a stack of books in his hand.  In sharp contrast with his wife, he never smiled, and in response to any greeting, he gave a grunt from his grave and bespectacled face and walked away.   Whenever we saw them together, Dimitria would burst into a bright smile while her husband would lower his lost and forlorn gaze so as not to make any eye-contact.  We always wondered how they ever came to know each other, let alone get married. 

George was the maintenance man of our building.  He was a burly black man in a six foot frame.  Soon he became a good friend of Swapna.  He told her that he was only eighteen, although he looked much older than that.  George always wore a stained work overall, and a Red Sox baseball cap to keep his unruly nimbus of hair in check.  Indian cuisine wasn’t very popular those days, but working among so many Indians, he developed a taste for Indian food.  Thus, some days George would knock at the door when Swapna was cooking, and relish fresh-cooked food.  Bengalis are avid fish-eaters, and literally every part of a fish is used in Bengali cuisine.  One day George came in when Swapna was cooking Machher Muro-r chaw-chowree (a mish-mash of vegetables with fish-head).  Before long George had a plate in his hand.  Swapna was hesitant, because she was aware that in America even pets didn’t eat fish heads, but George wouldn’t budge.  He told her that he was from Georgia where his grandma made dishes with fish heads.  Needless to say, George finished half of the food Swapna cooked that day. 

Swapna once had a funny encounter with George.  According to the Bengali tradition, married women put a streak of red powder called Sindoor in the parting of their hair, and paint the edges of their toes with a red dye called Altaa.  One afternoon Swapna was putting on Altaa when George knocked on the door.  When she opened the door, George’s gaze fell on Swapna’s half-painted toe.  With a big shriek “Oh, my god, blood!” George lurched forward in an effort to steady Swapna.  That day she had a tough time explaining to George that it was not blood but simply a red dye. 

 

After coming to Boston our financial situation took a nosedive.  Pullman, where we lived before, was a rather inexpensive place to live even with mymeager graduate student stipend.  But my postdoctoral stipend at MIT was barely enough for both of us to live on.  This was further aggravated because neither Swapna nor I was good at managing money.   
 
Learning to manage money and to be wise about it was a lesson that I, and for that matter most Indians, had to learn after coming to America.  In those days money was a taboo in India.  Like sex, monetary matters were never discussed in the presence of children, or even young adults.  ‘Money’ was considered to be a dirty thing which only adults could deal with.  This notion matched perfectly with the age-old Indian wisdom of renunciation, sacrifice and fortitude, preached by numerous sages, prophets, teachers, and even rather ironically, monarchs and politicians for thousands of years.  After starting college in Kolkata I took up a job of privately coaching school-going kids, which was a common practice among college-going students.  I did a few of such private tuitions, and at the end of the month I would give all the money that I earned as remuneration to my mother.  She gave me a monthly pocket money whatever she felt appropriate.  You couldn’t argue with that arrangement, because your parents always knew best about your financial needs.  After coming to America we had to quickly come out of that mind set, and learn to be wise about money-matters. After coming to Pullman as a graduate student,  a few of the biggest early hurdles were opening an account in a local bank, writing checks to pay for my dorm rent, and buying clothes for myself!

I came to the US in the mid-seventies when India was a miserably poor country, at least in the Western eyes.  We watched ads in the TV where a child was about to waste food, and his mother would insist that the wasted food could save the life of a hungry child in India.  This is not the place to debate how poor India really was those days, but for most Indians economic insecurity was an omnipresent threat, and as a result saving for a rainy day was as natural as breathing.  In my graduate student days, we used to keep a clay piggy bank with a slit in its back and dropped small changes into it, promising not to take anything out unless it was absolutely needed.  Taking out coins and bills from that narrow slit with a hairpin was a painstaking process, yet we had to empty that bank to almost the last penny at the end of nearly every month. 

After coming to Boston, in the beginning, it was very difficult to save even small changes.  But soon we adjusted to the situation and started saving whatever amount we could afford.  This became a little easier when Swapna started a research job in the same lab that I was in for a small pay.  We had to save, because people back home simply would not believe that you are living in America, and yet you are so poor that you cannot save a penny! 


By the time we came to live in Massachusetts it was almost my sixth year in the US. It was customary then and still is among Indians that weinvite one or both of our parents to visit us, usually for an impending child-birth.  We were strict about not having a child before our financial situation was a bit more comfortable, but we decided that my mother would come for a visit.  So, we had to save enough money to buy a round trip airfare for her, and make all the arrangements for her visit.

As her arrival date drew near we learnt that my maternal grand-parents were accompanying her on this trip.  Furthermore, we came to know that Khuku-masi, my mother’s youngest sister, and her husband, Debi-mesho, were driving from Fayetteville, North Carolina, to Boston to greet the entourage from Kolkata and take my grandparents to North Carolina with them.   

Our one bedroom apartment was essentially bare.  In those days, there used to be a place called the MIT exchange close to the MIT campus, where students and postdocs could buy and exchange used furniture at a very reasonable price.  Still, with my meager stipend, we could only afford to buy a bed frame with a box spring, a new mattress, and a used chest of drawers during the first few months from that furniture-exchange.  We also bought a cheap mirror with a brown plastic frame from K-Mart.  Swapna stacked a few large square card-board boxes to a U-like shape, and wrapped them with contact paper with a gray marble pattern.  She placed that contraption against the wall and placed the mirror in the middle.  That was her dresser.  We also bought a cheap wooden table with metal legs and a light brown laminated top, and four matching chairs with faux leather seats.   

Before our guests arrived we felt that we should at least have a couch, which might serve the dual purpose of sitting and sleeping at night.  We immediately started looking, and soon learned that someone in our building was selling one.  It turned out that a couple from the fourth floor were leaving the apartment and selling their furniture.  When I went to their apartment, everything except a sofa was sold.  The sofa looked a bit old and battered, but the price was just right.  After I handed the money, the couple requested whether we could take the sofa two days later when they had to vacate the apartment.  I agreed, and departed.  

Two days later when a friend of mine and I went down to the apartment it was stripped of everything, except for our sofa which sat idly in the same place that we saw it earlier.  When we were about to lift the sofa we noticed that it had only two legs and the missing legs were propped up with thick telephone books.  We felt like slapping ourselves on the face because we didn’t check out the piece carefully.  It was all too late.  We took that sofa down and left it outside for the garbage-man to pick up.  I didn’t make another attempt to acquire any furniture before our guests arrived.

It turned out that we were misinformed all the way.  Milli-masi, another of my mother’s sisters was also accompanying them.  So, when all six guests arrived from India and North Carolina we barely had any room to move around in our tiny one bed-room apartment.  We collected pillows and blankets from our friends and neighbors, and it was camping time.  After seven days, all our guests except my mother headed down to North Carolina. 

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It is almost unthinkable to an adult American that his parents would stay with him beyond a few days.  But in traditional Indian mind set it is justthe opposite.  Thus, when parents come from India for a visit, it is assumed that they would stay for months.  Conversely, when an Indian goes to India for a visit, he stays at ‘home’ which is his parents’ place.  We always say ‘Ami deshe jachhee’ (I am going home), even when we might have had left that ‘home’ years ago.  India remains ‘desh’ or homeland to an Indian no matter which part of the globe he makes his permanent abode.

In India it is normal for a bride to live in groom’s house with his parents and often with other in-laws.  Needless to say, this experience often turns very bitter.  Swapna accompanied me to America right after our wedding, and never got a chance to live with her in-laws.  Therefore, when we invited my mother to stay with us for an extended period, I was clearly apprehensive. By this time we were completely accustomed to living by just the two of us, and the presence of a third person would be certain to encroach into our privacy.  So, I asked Swapna somewhat sheepishly,

“Do you think it is a good idea to have Maa living with us for months?”

“Why not, I will sleep next to her in the living room, and you will have the bed room all to yourself.”  She replied with a twinkle in her eyes. 

“Oh, come on.”

“No, seriously, if we were in India, we probably had to live with your parents, and I would have you only at the end of the day.  We will pretend that we are in India, while Maa is here.”   

Her reply was not particularly convincing to me.   But all my worries evaporated quickly.  Swapna endeared her to a point that I almost felt jealous that my mother cared for her more than me.  A person, not familiar with our tradition, inevitably would make a ‘mother-in-law’ joke to Swapna to show sympathy. But Swapna always pulled a long face showing her disapproval, and that person would scramble in embarrassment. 

Swapna kept her promise about our sleeping arrangement despite my mother’s ample objections.  It was neither pleasant nor convenient and flat-out absurd!  In the middle of the night we had to tip-toe into our bedroom.  Soon my dear wife realized the ridiculousness of the arrangement, and we moved to our bedroom and Maa spent her nights in the living room alone.


(Posted April 1, 2015)

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