Immigrant Bengalis

Age of Innocence on the Wane

Subhash Nandy

Imagine a young man in his mid-twenties, who had just got married to his sweetheart about a month ago, traveling alone on a Greyhound bus from Fort Collins, Colorado on a long journey to State College, Pennsylvania.  He was definitely feeling lonely, having left his young, newly wed wife at the other side of the country -- in New York, with his wife’s cousin -- about a month ago.  But he was aware of the fact that at the end of his long journey, he would settle down with his sweetheart in his own apartment for the first time in his life. 

In his short two years of stay in America, this young person had never taken such a long journey on the open roads of America.  Traveling through the wide expanse of the Midwest, he was mesmerized by what he saw from the windows of the bus -- fertile fields of yellow corn and wheat stretching for miles into the horizon.  It was then the end of August, and the sun was bright in the sky. His bus meandered through narrow state highways between the corn and wheat fields to drop off passengers in the small towns of the Midwest. 

That overwhelmed passenger in the bus was none other than me, and I gawked at the abundant beauty of nature.  Up to that point in my life, I had never experienced a peregrination like that one. At the end of the second day, we reached the bus station in downtown Chicago around midnight.  All of the lighted skyscrapers that dotted the Chicago skyline amazed me. 

Two days after I started from Fort Collins, I finally arrived at State College, Pennsylvania. A friend of mine from college days in India waited for me at the bus station.  He took me to his apartment to stay there that night.  Next morning, we went to the apartment complex office, somewhat away from the college campus, where he had reserved an apartment for us.  The only way to commute to the campus from that apartment complex was to take a public bus.  For the month of August that year, Mita stayed with her cousin in New York. During the Labor Day weekend, she arrived from New York with her cousin and brother-in-law. By that time, I had purchased a few essential pieces of furniture for our apartment from outgoing Indian students of the campus, and sought the help of friends to move those pieces to our apartment.  Thus began our conjugal life in State College, Pennsylvania. 

Soon we met a couple of married Bengali graduate students – who used to live in the married student apartment complex belonging to the University.  They became close friends of us – Prasanta and Swapna Ghosh and Aniruddha and Manju Banerjee. We started spending Friday evenings in their apartments. 

We spent our first Christmas vacation in New York at the place of Mita’s cousin.  Mita had heard about the sights and sounds of New York from me.  She wanted to visit the gargantuan statue of Liberty.  From mid-Manhattan we took the subway and then the harbor ferry to visit the statue.  It was my second visit to Liberty Island, but the shining green statue of Lady Liberty with the torch in her hand, beckoning immigrants to the land of opportunity, was still awe-inspiring for me.  I had heard from Indian friends that America had always provided enormous opportunity to countless immigrants who flocked to her shores. I imagined that I would also be able to snatch that opportunity fairly easily when my turn would come after completing graduate school. 

We endured the bone-chilling winter season that first year in State College.  We did not have a car. We had to go do grocery shopping occasionally by trudging through knee-deep snow.  We had to walk through a small wooded area behind our apartment complex to reach the grocery store.  Once as we were coming back from the store with our hands full of grocery bags filled to the brim, Mita lost her footing on the slippery snow and ice in the woods; she slipped and fell down, hitting the ground hard.  She got stuck in the snow and could not get up easily.  Being young and innocent, slipping and falling for the first time on hard ice was a funny incident to both of us. We laughed together, as I lent my hand to help her get up from her fall.  Fortunately, she did not have any serious injury from that fall and moved on with her life. 

Eventually we heralded the advent of the balmy spring season.  About that time, we got a letter from my in-laws informing us that they would visit us in summer.  Mita was understandably very excited and wanted to visit Niagara Falls, Washington DC and New York with her parents.  But we had a problem – we did not have a car!  We started going through the advertisements in the local paper, looking for a reasonably priced used car.  After a few weeks of search, we bought a used Ford car, which was our pride at that time!  I had to get enough highway driving experience in order to be able to drive to JFK airport to pick up my in-laws.  After some practice driving lessons, I got my driver’s license in no time. 

We then planned a trip to Niagara Falls with our friends, the Ghosh family, and the Banerjee family.  That was the first time that I would drive on a four-hour journey from State College, Pennsylvania, to Niagara Falls, New York.  Needless to say I was excited about the trip, but I was somewhat apprehensive too!  Would I be able to complete the trip successfully? 

The Banerjees drove in their red Datsun, and we drove in our Ford to Niagara Falls through Interstate 80 West partly, and then north on the state highway to reach Niagara Falls.  My first visit to Niagara Falls was indeed awe inspiring!  I had never seen such a gigantic volume of water gushing over such a horse shoe cliff!  The thunderous noise of all that volume of water coming down the falls was incredible. We went on the Maid of the Mist boat cruise which came close to the base of the falls; there we got sprayed by the mist emanating from the falls.  I still remember sunlight breaking up into a rainbow of colors over the mist caused by the spray of water from the falls. 

We stayed for one night at a motel near Niagara Falls.  During the trip back from Niagara Falls to the motel that night, most of the time I followed Aniruddha’s Datsun from a distance in our Ford.  After all, he was much more experienced than me in driving a car at that time!  But while going to the motel, after a while, I lost sight of Aniruddha’s car at a traffic light as he sped away and the light turned red on me.  I got a little scared – because from then on we had to depend totally on the road map to get to the motel in an unfamiliar town.  Remember there was no GPS to guide us to the motel back in those days!  Although we were apprehensive initially, Mita guided me in that challenging venture, and we somehow made it to the motel that night after getting somewhat lost in that unfamiliar city.  When Mita’s parents arrived, we again visited Niagara Falls along with Washington DC and New York.  But I was a more seasoned driver by then and did not lose my way in those cities.

That year, just before Thanksgiving, we decided to drive to Disney World in Florida for our first vacation.  That would be our longest driving adventure till then.  We got our car checked by a local mechanic and started on the Monday of Thanksgiving week on our long trip.  We completed our journey to Orlando in twenty-four hours, with a night break at an inexpensive motel in a town aptly named South of the Border in South Carolina, just a few miles south of the North Carolina border. 

Our stay at Orlando and the visit to Disney World went smoothly.  We were mesmerized by the awesome sights of the Disney Castle and the colorful parade of Disney characters down the main street in Disney World.  The scary rides in the high roller coasters were enthralling to us.  On our return trip we again stayed for a night at a motel in South of the Border.  This was on the Friday night following Thanksgiving Day. After our dinner that night, we retired to our room and watched TV.  Something happened at that motel after ten pm that surprised us immensely.  At that time, the TV was automatically switched to an adult channel!  Little did I know that this was a common practice among motel owners in the South to lure customers -- as we saw later in the movie “Mississippi Masala”!

After my professor came back from sabbatical leave, my research work started to progress slowly.  Finally, I was able to build the research equipment to conduct experimental trial runs.  After a couple of years of hard work of experimentation and data collection, my supervisor suggested that I could start writing my thesis.

Like many of my compatriots at that time, I wanted to get a job in the States after my graduation.  I was on a student visa, and I needed a work visa to work.  With a twenty-twenty hindsight now that I look back at that time, I realize that I had no inkling of the laws of supply and demand!  The eventual recognition of the fact that I was not the only candidate who had the aspiration to work as a research scientist, and that there were other people with similar backgrounds looking for the same positions, was a humbling experience.  Surprisingly, after my successful oral thesis defense, I got a temporary research position in the university. 

I was at my wit’s end thinking what I would do in the future. I inquired sincerely about possible post doctoral positions with professors in various universities pursuing research in my area.  In the middle of that summer, a professor from MIT responded kindly to my inquiries.  He arranged for me to fly to Boston from State College on a Sunday morning to present my work to his research group on Monday.  He interviewed me for a possible post-doctoral position.  He then asked me to send him recommendation letters from my professor at Penn State.  With a nervous heart, I returned to State College and asked my advisor to write a recommendation letter.  Could it be possible that finally events had started rolling in the right direction for us?

Towards the middle of August, I received a letter from the professor at MIT with an offer for a postdoctoral fellowship.  This started another chapter in my life in the States.  This was the first time we would move away from rural State College to live in a major metropolis.  We did not know anybody in Boston at that time.  So I started asking my friends in State College if they knew anybody up there.  A friend of mine suggested the names of a Bengali couple – one of whom was once a post-doctoral researcher at MIT.  With trepidation in heart I called Dr. Rahul Ray after I reached Boston.  That was thirty years ago, and to this day, Rahul and Swapna Ray have remained our steadfast friends through times of joy and sorrow.

We moved to an apartment in a suburb of Boston, carrying whatever little furniture we had in a small moving truck.  Prior to that trip, we had never driven a moving truck on interstate highways.  On the way to Boston from State College, we spent a night in Rhode Island with Avijit, a college friend of mine, and his wife.  On our day of the move, Avijit and his wife came to Boston to help us unload the furniture from the truck and help place those into our apartment.

My life as a post doctoral researcher in Cambridge started rather unceremoniously.  I soon found out that MIT was a much larger university than my alma mater – Penn State.  The professors at MIT were all well acclaimed in their research areas, and the students worked independently on their research projects.  The professors were usually busy attending conferences, or consulting in industry.  The project in which I worked was funded for two years. I had to work hard on my own without any direct supervision from my supervisor. I used to walk often through the hallowed lengthy corridor of MIT, which stretched for a quarter mile from the main gothic entrance on Massachusetts Avenue to the chemical engineering department on Ames Street at the other end of the campus. Sometimes, I would get a shiver up my spine thinking about all those eminent scientists and engineers who had sauntered along the same corridor! How could I ever fill in their shoes?

We liked the sights and sounds of Boston, and spent the weekends visiting crowded places like the Hay Market, where we shopped in the weekend farmers’ market.  Just after we went to Boston, Swapna Ray helped Mita to dress up as a Bengali bride in a cultural show on India at the Museum of Science.  To our utter surprise, her picture showed up on the weekend magazine with a Thursday issue of the Boston Globe!  Sometimes on weekends we visited the boisterous Harvard Square, where we were entertained by impromptu music played by the punk rockers with rainbow colored dyed hairs. We watched the display of resplendent fireworks on Fourth of July night at Boston Harbor from the bank of Charles River in Cambridge.

My ultimate goal was to obtain a permanent resident visa, so that I could live and work in the States.  After a year of stay at MIT, I started looking for jobs.  On a sunny spring day after months of job search, I received a call from the research director at Polaroid.  His office was in a building owned by Polaroid - adjacent to MIT. I met him at his office one morning after that phone call.  He was from one of the IITs and had worked at Polaroid since he had left graduate school.  He said he would ask one of his research managers to contact me for a formal interview.  He also mentioned to me that Polaroid would sponsor me for a permanent resident visa.  I thought this would be the incredible break for which I had waited for so long!  I could not believe that it could finally happen in my life!  I was not sure because things never ran that smooth for me.  Eventually, I got a call from the research manager who set up a time for me to visit Polaroid facilities for a formal interview.  After the interview, I thought I had a reasonable shot for getting the research position at Polaroid, since the interview process went quite smoothly. 

In about two weeks, that research manager from Polaroid called me at MIT to tell me that I would get a job offer from Polaroid.  He told me that the human resources manager would get in touch with me within a week.  But a week turned into a month, and no phone call came. I called the research manager, who reported directly to the research director. I was told that the open research position had been frozen, and there would be no employment offer for me.  I consulted my friends, who suggested that I should call the research director at Polaroid. 

For the next few weeks, every time I called the research director, he was away in a meeting.  His secretary would take a message for him, promising me that he would give me a call back, which never came.  Finally, I thought that if I would call this director at lunch time, probably I would get him in his office, without the intervention of his secretary.  As luck would have it, I did get a hold of him one day during lunch time. My conversation with him went somewhat like this: 

"Sir, your research manager had called me to offer a job."

"Yes, I know."

"He even told me that the HR manager would call me with a proper job offer letter. But that never materialized."

"We have frozen all hiring now."

"But Sir, I have decided to quit my position at MIT based on the phone call I have received earlier."

"I am sorry to hear that."

"Sir, how can a manager of a company, whose stock is traded in the New York stock exchange, make me a concrete offer, and then take that offer back? Is it fair?"

"What do you mean by that?  Will you take Polaroid to court because of that?"

"No sir, I am very frustrated by the turn of events so far."

"Let me see what I can do."

Today I sit back and think that the research director did act conscientiously after that brief but pungent phone conversation with me.  A month after that phone call, the Human Resources manager from Polaroid called me finally to make a firm job offer.  He also sent a written letter to my home within a couple of days.  This was just before Christmas of my second year of stay in Boston.  I could not have dreamt of a better Christmas present for me and my wife that year!  We celebrated by watching Tchaikovsky’s fascinating ballet, “The Nutcracker”, performed at Symphony Hall in Boston.  The job at Polaroid helped me finally realize my rather elusive dream of getting a green card and settling down in the land of opportunity.


(Posted August 1, 2016)

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Comments received on August 1, 3016, from Tinty B. : "Enjoyed reading Mr Nandy's article. It well reflected the range of emotional experiences that students go through -- the first apartment, the first car, the first encounter with Niagara and then the first job offer. Simple, yet so beautifully expressed. Please convey my regards to him."

Comments received on August 2, 2016, from Rahul R.  -- "As a post-doctoral fellow, one is always at a loss about future directions of life.  Subhash has aptly described that uncertainty: which career-path to choose, how to get a Green card, would I have to go back for the lack of a sponsor, etc.  These questions are valid even today.  Just a couple of days ago I met a person who is desperately looking for a H-1 sponsor.  Her agony was palpable. Good job!"