From Calcutta to Jersey and Back Again, an Epic Immigrant Journey
Kushanava Choudhury on the Immigrant's Homeward Gaze
Of all the people who came to Ellis Island in the first decades of the 20th century, more than half went back. They never told us that on our seventh-grade class trip.
The American immigrant myth says that migration is a reset button. The New World offers deliverance from the past, liberation from the Old World’s limited horizons. The myth states: “The past is gone. The future awaits. Start over.”
It never really works like that. That was the story no one ever told about America. The past is never left behind. It haunts every world you live in. Sometimes it drags you back.
By the time I visited Ellis Island on that class trip, I had already migrated halfway around the world four times, flipping back and forth between continents like a dual-voltage appliance. My parents were Indian scientists, torn between nation and vocation. Twice they moved to America, twice they moved back. They were unwilling to leave their country and they were unable to stay. When he was around 40, my father quit his cushy job at a government research institute in Calcutta. He wanted one more chance, he said to his boss, while his “blood was still warm.”
“How many more times will you move that boy?” his boss asked.
He said this was the last time.
So, when I was almost twelve, my parents and I moved to Highland Park, New Jersey. Our move carried no Emma Lazarus cadences. We certainly had not arrived tempest-tossed, beating at the golden door. Our coming was equivocal, always tied to return. Living in New Jersey, we hardly saw ourselves as immigrants. My parents expected to go back to India, like many of their Bengali friends, someday, eventually. On Saturday nights, they gathered at each other’s homes, ate 14-course meals brimming with various types of fish and meat, and derailed each other’s sentences in locomotive Bengali, their conversations full of memories of Calcutta. Return, the duty of return and the dream of return, were spoken of endlessly while eating platefuls of goat curry and hilsa fish. Few, of course, actually went back. There were too many good reasons not to. Nationalism and nostalgia did not pay the bills, raise children or advance careers. And yet that dream of a return to the great metropolis cocooned them like a protective blanket from the alien world all around.
As for me—my friends, my neighborhood, my Calcutta life was gone. In New Jersey, I was in seventh grade in a public school that had almost no Indian students. Cocooning was not an option. I had to fit in fast. I wasn’t assimilating as much as passing. So much of what went on inside my head was from another place. I had happy childhood memories of mid-morning cricket matches during summer vacations, of games played in gullies, rooftops, courtyards and streets. When I moved, it was the streets of the city as much as my childhood that I left behind.
We had not had an easy few years in America. The man who had offered the job to my father had made promises he did not keep, and so my father was forced to find other work, work he grew to despise. From time to time, there would be talk of another move, to Georgia, to Colorado, and I would pull down the posters in my room and prepare. We stayed put, the three of us adrift in the treacherous shoals of the lower middle class, a world of chronic car trouble and clothes from K-Mart. In the fall of my senior year, a piece of good news finally came to our two-bedroom apartment. I had been accepted early to Princeton University.
Every immigrant who has lugged worthless foreign degrees through customs knows that where you go to college, the seal on that sheepskin determines your lot in life. When the acceptance letter from Princeton arrived, my parents acted as if someone had come to our door with balloons and a giant cardboard check. It was their happiest day in America. But it wasn’t mine.
It is probably universally true that education drives a wedge between us and our hometowns, our families, our earlier selves. But for the immigrant the gap is greater, that divergence in mentality more extreme. My trajectory was taking me farther afield, to Princeton, while a part of me was elsewhere, in another country, in another city. Through all my sojourns I had carried memories on my back like Huien Tsang’s chair, until at 17, I felt hunched over with nostalgia like a middle-aged man. When the Princeton letter arrived, I had what my friend Ben called a “premature midlife crisis.”
At night, I couldn’t sleep. By day I sleepwalked through classes. Each evening, while my friends assembled at Dunkin’ Donuts, complained about how there was nothing to do in our little town and roared together into the night on long aimless drives, while they enjoyed the languor of spring and that sweet American affliction called senioritis, I stayed home and stewed. In my mind, I hatched a plan. I would go back.
India lives in its villages, Mahatma Gandhi had said. So, even though I was a city boy who had never spent a night in an Indian village, I wrote letters back home to arrange to teach in a village school. Instead of Princeton, I would take a year off and head to rural Bengal, I told my parents. But in our two-bedroom apartment full of shared immigrant striving, such a detour was out of the question.
Instead I just drove. The black night, the shimmering yellow lines on inviting ribbons of asphalt, the radio jammed loud. Enveloped by night and noise, the mind gave way to a deeper calling. Just drive. It was the mantra of our Jersey youth, an exhortation, a command, an ideology, something hardwired in us as teenage boys. Night after night, I took out my parents’ Toyota and just drove, without destination, without purpose, to escape.
Down Route 27, past New Brunswick towards Princeton, were farms and wooded pockets not yet sullied by the florescent glare of strip malls. Back then, there were still a few miles of dark solitude. When the cop pulled me over, I was doing 74 in a 45 zone. He had been following me for quite some time.
It would be four points and a hefty ticket, he told me. “My parents are going to kill me,” I muttered. He took my fresh license, my father’s insurance and registration cards, and went back to write it up.
He came back with a reduced ticket. Two points. “Where were you going in such a rush?”
“I was just driving—just trying to clear my head—to Princeton,” I said. “I’ll be going there in the fall. Sometimes I go there just to see what it is going to be like.”
He went back to his car again. I waited. A few moments later, he came back.
“Don’t drive angry,” he said. “And don’t believe everything those liberals teach you at that school.”
He let me go.
Before we moved to America, we had lived in Sir’s house in Calcutta. Sir was my parents’ professor. As graduate students, Ma and Baba had met and fallen in love in Sir’s lab. His real name was Rajat Neogy, but like most professors in India, he was addressed as “Sir” by his students. As a kid, perhaps not knowing this was not his name, I took to calling him Sir as well.
When I came back to Calcutta, I moved back in to Sir’s house. His wife had long since passed away. His only son lived in Boston, and Sir shuttled between continents, dodging Boston’s snowy winters and Calcutta’s monsoons. Sir was a father figure to my parents, a revered teacher. To me, he was a grandfather, teacher, confidant, friend. We ate together, watched cricket together, and he read anything I read. When I woke up early in the mornings, he would send me down to Niranjan’s sweet shop to fetch kochuris and jillipis—a Bengali fry-up—for breakfast. On days when I slept late, he would say: “Are you taking drugs?” I sometimes felt like we were a premise for a sitcom: two bachelors separated by two generations, living under one roof.
Sir had an idea that I had come to Calcutta to find a wife. There seemed to him to be no other reason that I would be living with a 75-year-old man, watching cricket and working at the Statesman. After all, everything that could possibly be wrong with a city was wrong with Calcutta. The city is situated between a river and a swamp. Its weather, Mark Twain had said, “was enough to make a brass doorknob mushy.” For six months out of the year, you are never dry. You take two to three showers a day to keep cool, but start sweating the moment you turn off the tap. The dry winter months, when I arrived, were worse. I woke up some mornings feeling my chest was on fire. Breathing in Calcutta, Manash, the neighborhood doctor told me, was like smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. Keeping the dust and grime off my body, out of my nails, hair and lungs was a daily struggle. Then there were the mosquitoes, which arrived in swarms at sundown and often came bearing malaria.
I could look forward to the monsoons, of course, when floodwaters regularly reached your waist in parts of the city. When they weren’t flooded, the streets were blocked by marches, rallies, barricades and bus burnings, all of which passed for normal politics in the city. Staying cool, dry, healthy and sane took up so much effort that it left little enthusiasm for much else.
Nothing had changed since my childhood. The paanwallas still ruled the street corners, perched on stoops with their bottles of soft drinks and neatly arrayed cigarette packets. On the streets, the pushers and pullers of various types of carts still transported most of the city’s goods. The footpaths were still overrun by hawkers selling bulbous sidebags, shirts, combs, peanuts in minuscule sachets, onion fritters and vegetable chow mein. The mildewed concrete buildings, the bowl-shaped Ambassador taxis, the paintings on the backs of buses, the ubiquitous political graffiti, the posters stuck onto any flat surface, the bazaars full of squatting fish sellers, the tea shop benches on the sidewalks, the caged balconies of the middle classes, the narrow entrails of corrugated slums, nothing had changed, not even the impassive expressions on the faces of clerks. The city was in its own time zone.
It was not a happy time. Calcutta was in its 23rd year of Communist rule, its third decade of factory closures. Until the 1970s it had been the largest and most industrialized city in India but had now been eclipsed in population and prosperity by Bombay and Delhi. The only reason politicians seemed to visit the city any more was to pronounce its death.
Since the early 1990s, life in other parts of India had been improving for people like us, the educated few. The government had loosened its hold over the economy, and dollars were flowing into the American back offices and call centers located in Bangalore and Hyderabad. Countless college-educated young men and women, including many of my cousins, had fled Calcutta for these boomtowns. On my mother’s side, none of my cousins remained in the city. Our ancestral house in North Calcutta had once been filled with the voices of children; now my two middle-aged and widowed uncles occupied one floor each with hardly a soul to argue with. My grandmother, Dida, occupied the middle floor. I was the only grandchild in the city, and I enjoyed a monopoly on her affections. She was half-paralyzed and had been confined to a bed for years, but her spirit was always cheerful in spite of it all. She still read books and the newspapers. She stayed up in the afternoons watching Bengali soaps and into the night to keep up on the international cricket matches.
I feared visiting most of my other relatives, however. My generation had gone missing, leaving behind a city of geriatrics who busied themselves with bilirubin levels and stool analyses. Their blood-test results were kept in plastic bags as if they were examination mark-sheets or graduation certificates, to be presented to visitors along with tea and biscuits.
Why had I come back? everyone asked.
It would be one thing if I had come back to take care of my ailing parents. But my parents lived in America.
Maybe I did not get along with my parents? asked the bank officer when I went to the local branch to open an account.
Could I not get a job in America? asked the man who ran the copy shop in the bazaar.
Had the Americans, for some reason, thrown me out? wondered a colleague at the Statesman.
Well then, if I must stay in India, they all advised, I had better clear out of Calcutta. If I had any career ambitions at all, I should go to Delhi, Bombay or Bangalore. After all, even if I had been booted out of America, I had that magic wand that opened all doors in India: a foreign degree.
I knew why I was back, though I did not tell people this, fearing they would scoff at my noblesse oblige, or worse, laugh at my naiveté. Like the revolutionaries of my parents’ generation, I wanted to change things. There was no revolution for me to join, no ideology I could adhere to, no dream left. My best hope for making a difference was to work at a newspaper.
From The Epic City, by Kushanava Choudhury, courtesy Bloomsbury. Copyright 2018, Kushanava Choudhury.