The stories of three Indian immigrants as they make the journey to America, build memories along the way and wrestle with the eternal question facing those away from home — are we here to stay or is there a road that leads back to where we came from?
My teens were spent in the nineties, which was a more interesting time to be in India. The economy was opening up, Tendulkar had burst onto the scene, Indi-pop was in its nascent period and more importantly, cable television arrived in India. Star TV network, MTV and other channels entered the living rooms of Indians. English language programming from a foreign land was now available in urban areas.
It was not as if Doordarshan had left us to the wolves. On the contrary, television serials ranging from Mahabharat to Surabhi to Chandrakanta, reflected work of high quality and imagination. But it was television from a single source and it wasn’t on all the time. Then cable television arrived and it brought in sights and sounds unfamiliar to the vast masses before. The tune of The Bold and the Beautiful got etched into many a mind.
The sight of Pamela Anderson in Baywatch bouncing down the sands of a beach somewhere in sunny Los Angeles saving drowning folks and people from the dullness of their everyday lives became commonplace. MTV would be on all the time, and before it was invaded by the real thing that matters in India, a.k.a. Hindi film music, you could see everything from Meatloaf to Michael Jackson.
I relished that I could now watch English movies on TV, as opposed to dragging my friends to a cinema in South Mumbai all the time. It was also in the nineties that the first McDonalds opened in Mumbai. I was there, along with a bunch of my classmates on the day it opened. We stood in what was a remarkably long line to eat what was remarkably ordinary food. We did it because it was there and it was a novelty. Food, music, movies – America had invaded India in the nineties. It had introduced itself to the masses in India and a relationship had been forged.
My initial exposure to America is muddled in my mind. The occasional relative visiting would bring in a Wrigley’s chewing gum pack back. Through the good graces of some others, I had acquired my first Lego set. All hallmarks of an American life. But by and large it was through television, movies, music, the internet and the multiplicative effect of these affecting my peers that formed an image of America for me.
By the second year of engineering, I had seen enough seniors plan this trip to the United States to further their education that it ceased to be a novelty and almost began sounding like a rite of passage. There was a constant line of reasoning that was offered by those making the cut.
“Why do you want go to the US?”
Opportunities. That one word was reason enough for my colleagues to pack their bags, leave their families and hop across multiple ponds. I would insert myself in to these conversations, mostly as a listener than as a participant, hoping to pick up words of wisdom from these determined and dedicated souls. When the number of unknowns are high, one often has to rely upon scrappy pieces of data and combine it with gut instinct to proceed. I often wondered how these people made the call. How much did they know about the US?
Dirty, Old Luggage
“So, you got this dirty, old luggage from India and it broke and you are expecting to sue us now?”
The woman behind the Delta airlines counter glowered at me through her glasses. I was at a loss for words. My blue, oversized suitcase, carefully packed by my mom, lay by my feet, its side neatly ripped. A sealed bottle of Priya’s ginger pickle, a black comb and a blue Parachute coconut oil bottle had rolled outside. I tried to balance the suitcase with my feet while shaking my head.
No, I didn’t want to sue.
My suitcase was not dirty or old.
All I wanted was to seal it and catch my connecting flight to Lexington, Kentucky.
Someone tapped me on my shoulder. I turned to see a white-haired gentleman smiling at me.
“Don’t worry, I got this”, he said.
I was too dazed to react. He winked at me and gestured a thumbs-up. Together, we lifted my suitcase away from the center of attention. The man got a roll of plastic wrapping and rolled up my suitcase three times so it was tightly sealed.
“You’re all set now”, he said and walked away before I could tell him how grateful I was.
I wheeled my suitcase towards a long corridor over which dangled several confusing signs. Terminals, gates, concourses! I had no idea how I would get to Terminal 5, Gate C 10 to board my connecting flight from Atlanta to Lexington. This was turning out to be a never-ending ordeal. I wistfully watched a crowd of Indian students laughing and heading purposefully towards an elevator. Why could I not have made my very first trip to America with at least one friend?
Why and how exactly did I end up making a long journey to an unfamiliar land all by myself? I had graduated with a management degree from the Birla Institute of Technology & Science, (BITS) Pilani and without thinking too much about America or why I wanted to study there, I gave my GRE (Graduate Record Examination). I filled up all the applications by hand, religiously assembled all the necessary documents and reference letters, and posted my packets.
Only two universities gave me admission to their Computer Science (CS) program despite a good GRE score because my undergraduate degree was in management and not CS. Exactly one university thought I was worthy of financial assistantship and that was the University of Kentucky, Lexington. In the middle of nowhere, basically. I gleefully accepted and began the arduous project of packing my life up into two huge suitcases that my mother and I specially purchased from Burma bazaar, the go-to place in Chennai for “quality imported articles”.
I wasn’t yet thinking about life in a place some 8000 miles and a painfully long journey away from India. My friends had applied to study there and so had I. I knew I wanted to study Computer Science but the details did not matter to my twenty year old brain.
The 9000 mile leap
Where is home? What is home? I often grappled with these questions during my childhood years. My father was a public sector bank employee and his job description included frequently moving between cities. I got to live in a new place every 3-4 years on an average. Born in Chennai, I had a pan-India and pan-continental upbringing straddling Bhubaneshwar, Chennai, Madurai, Canada, Trichy and Mumbai. I went to 6 different schools before I completed Grade 12 and could, at one point, speak 4 native languages fluently. Whenever my father came home with news of these “transfers”, a collective groan would emanate from my mother and I. My mother protested because she had to bear the brunt of the packing, unpacking, setting up house, organizing, settling down routine; Me – I just didn’t like moving.
As a young child, I thought my life was pretty tumultuous with all the moving we did. Of course, when one’s perspective is about the size of a fishbowl, pretty much everything seems that way. Looking back now, I think my childhood was fairly normal. Ours was a typical middle-class family. Life in India of the eighties was fairly straightforward. India was solidly socialistic although I was blissfully unaware of it. Socialist India didn’t offer too many distractions in terms of entertainment.
There were no malls, no 24×7 TV channels, no video games (in an average middle-class household) and no computers. My father once told me that he had to be on a waiting list to buy a Bajaj Chetak scooter and that wait period was undefined. You put your name down for a scooter and you had to patiently twiddle your thumbs until the Government approved your buy. No driving out the lot with a brand new scooter just because you fancied it and had money in your pocket. No impulse buying. My father had his scooter delivered within a year because a friend who got it decided he didn’t want it after all and my father bought it from him. To buy a new-fangled (at that time), Maruti 800, which was the rage at that time, people have had to wait for 10 years before their number came up!
But all this didn’t faze my father’s generation. It was just how life was and one accepted it. Looking back, I really do think those were simpler times. We had bare minimum furniture in the house. A dining table was a late addition that never got utilized. We ate sitting cross-legged on floor.
Washing machines were unheard of. Landline phones and computers were still a novelty. Children played outside on the streets and parents didn’t worry about kidnappings or sexual harassment or fatal accidents. I have disappeared for hours at a time playing with my friends and as long as I came home by 6 PM, my mother never worried unduly. In fact, she was glad to have us out of her hair so she could finish cooking dinner in peace.
Reprinted with permission from r2idreams: For here or to go?