Anil’s story- Chapter seven: A great leap forward-Philippines-1974 to 1978
Source: Google photo of carnival in the Philippines
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I arrived in the Philippines in July of 1974 with about 5 dollars in my pocket and no one to receive me at the airport from IRRI but that was hardly a problem. I knew where the BLTB bus station in Pasay was from where I got on a bus to Los Banos. The fare was less than one dollar.
At IRRI, a middle-aged sour looking women told me that she was the dormitory manager. I was to stay on the third floor and share the room with a Nigerian fellow. The cafeteria was closing so I should hurry. Although I felt tired, I went down to the cafeteria in my red Chiang Mai silk shirt and nice pants.
As soon as I entered the cafeteria, I noticed a Sikh with bright colored turban and quite a few other Indians .They looked at me with interest but did not know who I was. All new arrivals at IRRI were announced a week earlier but they somehow forgot about mentioning me so no one had a clue.
I paid no attention to their stares and fell in line with a food tray. A tall girl who served as food manager took immediate notice and asked where I was from and when did I arrive etc. She was very friendly. The new arrivals were few and not often so they were interested in knowing how long I was going to stay and what I was going to do. I said that I was at IRRI only for six months to do some research on rice . The Indians could wait no longer so the Sikh fellow came over to my table and introduced himself.
He said that he was Suranjeet from Rajasthan who was doing his Ph.D. research in microbiology . The other Indians came over and introduced themselves one by one so I got know Subroto and Laksman Lal . I would meet many others later.
Suranjeet was the most talkative one of the lot who wanted to know all about me at once so I told them what I could as briefly as possible and attended to my food . But they were not to leave me alone. They noticed that I behaved as if I was familiar with IRRI which was quite true. That was unusual because they had come to IRRI for the first time and in fact had traveled outside India for the first time.
They were interested in the cloth bag I carried and wanted to know what I kept inside. The female secretaries were the worst of the lot. They inspected the bag carefully and wanted to know who were the people that autographed my bag, so I had to tell them about Sapri and my Italian friends there.
They would always ask the questions like “when did you graduate” instead of asking how old was I. They looked carefully to see if I had a wedding band or not . I always disliked telling strangers my life story so often I answered very briefly or yes or no .
Back in my room I found the Nigerian fellow playing very loud music. This was going to be a problem that reminded me of Mohamed in Tizi Ouzou .I would share the room with this fellow for six months but we never talked and he never knew my name . It was just like the Wesley house in California. He would often go to Manila and buy some Mickey Mouse tee shirt or umbrella that he wanted to bring back to his home country.
The next day I met Dr. De la Cruz who was the deputy director general for administration and the person who would one day be responsible for making major decisions that would change my life forever . In fact it was he who had written to me in Algeria inviting me to come to IRRI. He was a short fellow who welcomed me and gave me some advance from my stipend right away.
I met a few other people who remembered me from my Vietnam days but finally I got to the Agronomy department where I was to meet the head. He was an Indian scientist called Dr. Singh who said that I was practically free to do any type of research I wanted but suggested that I look over a few ideas that he had for me. He also gave me a lot of reprints of his articles on rice research. He looked a bit impatient but introduced me to some other researchers in the department.
It was a small department where all the researchers and scholars and the Filipino staff worked in a small room called the scholar’s room. I had already met Subroto earlier. The Filipino staff carried on research on rice on behalf of the senior scientists who gave them the ideas whereas the scholars and the fellows like me pursued their own research for a degree like MS or Ph.D. I was to learn through my personal experience and many mistakes how to carry on field research but the next six months were a trying period for me . I did not have any prior field experience in this type of research.
Dr. Singh gave me a very large experiment to conduct that required a lot of labor but the IRRI laborers were a canny and devious lot. During weekdays they often did not show up to work saying they were sick but showed up on weekends when the pay was higher. This created a lot of problem for all the researchers who depended on the laborers to do the field work and collect data. I suffered grievously and my experimental plots looked anything but experimental. Still, I struggled on as best as I could.
My Filipino coworkers were not very helpful and kept distance. Often, I insisted on getting more workers to do the field work that also added to the tension. . Everyone was affected by the shortage of laborers. My time at IRRI was short and I was given a very large experiment that was not doing well so I was very discouraged. I had no one to share my troubles with.
I had made many mistakes in laying out the experiment so correcting them caused further delays . I worked seven days a week but it was not enough. The Indian fellows had been there longer and understood some of the problems I was facing but were unable to help . We made a routine of going out in the evenings to a place called Eva Lanes to play bowling or drink beer upstairs . I did not play bowling or like to drink beer but one who persisted that I try bowling was a Filipina secretary working in the plant physiology department. Her name is not important.
The Indians were more interested in drinking beer upstairs so eventually that is where I ended up with them. Upstairs, there used to be a band and two girls singing the same songs every night dedicated to the same Indians. The girls worked hard in the heat and perspired, and the band players had the same bored look on their faces, but it was a routine for them. They looked like they had never washed, and all needed a haircut but that was the style. They had to look like hippies.
The shabby place and the smoke-filled atmosphere did little to add to the lure and no one cared if the girls sang the same songs every night. Then there was the same old bent man carrying a basket full of eggs called ballot that he peddled. Balot is a 21-day old duck egg that had a duck formed partially in it. Filipinos loved to eat balot with feathers and all, but I could never bring myself to eat it. It reminded me so much of the green egg in Ba Xuyen. I sat through the evenings with just a bottle of beer watching the show through the haze of smoke. Often the policemen or women came for their free drinks, but they meant no harm.
San Miguel beer was cheap which the Indians and others drank like water and kept on shouting at the singers to sing this or that song. The empty street of Los Banos reverberated with the loud music.
Down the road was the competition called the Bamboo grove which was just the beer joint but a favorite of many because there was no bowling alley to make a racket. The girls there were a bit more daring with their backless gowns or tight pants. However, it remained a small-town affair where poor students spent their evenings because there was nowhere else to go.
The Indians were a canny lot and collected equal share of the cost every evening which turned out to be expensive for me. Suranjeet would always pull out his black book where he kept accounts of who owed him what. They were having fun at my expense so gradually I stopped going out. Besides beer drinking was never my favorite pastime anyway.
The Filipina secretary noticed. She asked me to join her at mealtime which I often did but she showed annoyance if I did not. She wanted me to wait for her at every meal. Now I began to be annoyed. I had never waited for anyone in my life except Suzanne and that was already history. I was not about to start again waiting for people so one day I told her that she should not expect anything from me at all. I was not that type of a person. I did not open doors for women or wait for them at tables. They could very well open their own doors. Besides she had absolutely no right to demand anything.
She kept quiet but did not give up. Then one day she asked me to show her my experiments although I was not sure if she was really that interested in field research. So, we passed by in front of the women’s dormitory in plain view of the volleyball players to go to the field. The gossip had already started.
Then came her birthday when she invited me to go with her gang to play bowling and afterwards join her in a party at the dorm. I played for a while but felt bored and went back to IRRI. Later I remembered that there was a party so I showed my face and went back to my room. I hated small talk and weather topics. She was very mad at me but I did not care. More and more this girl was acting like I was her boyfriend which I was not . This attitude annoyed me to no end . She was not pretty and did not have any qualities that I could appreciate so I kept my distance.
But her resolve was enduring. She made me a gift of a carved wood name plate that she had worked on for days. It was a nice gesture because no one remembered my birthday. Still I felt bad because I could not reciprocate her feelings at all. We had nothing in common and she was used to frivolities. My Indian friends noticed but kept their own counsel .
The Indian researchers tended not to mix with the rest and usually went to drink beer at the Eva Lanes as a group. I tried to make friends with the Filipinos, Japanese, Koreans and other nationalities. Indians found this odd that I did not like to go with them every night . I had mentioned that beer drinking was not a favorite pastime of mine .
At this time, I thought it would be good idea to organize a samosa party. Anyone could join who shelled out 20 pesos. We would then go to look for a goat and prepare samosas in the forestry apartment. This idea created a lot of enthusiasm and money was collected rapidly. Then on a weekend Suranjeet and I went looking for a goat. He was always game for anything out of the ordinary. It was funny because we leaped off the jeepney as soon we heard a goat somewhere and thus ended up in Tanauan in Batangas province where Suranjeet convinced a farmer to part with his goat for 80 pesos. We returned to Los Banos triumphant with the struggling goat in the jeepney to the amusement of the passengers.
The rest was history. The IRRI kitchen staff took over the preparation of the meat and others went shopping looking for other things. In the afternoon the samosa making got started and no one really cared if the samosas did not look like samosas or they were too big. The Iranians, Bangladeshis and Indians were having a whale of a good time. Soon some scotch appeared.
The next-door neighbors joined in and prepared more food. Now the party really began in earnest and people fought over each other to get hot samosas from the frying pan while Suranjeet kept on filling paper bags full of samosas on the sly for the late comers.
The party lasted all night with food, drinks and loud music. Now it was time to go back to the IRRI dormitory, but Subroto laid down in front of the auditorium and said that he had found his bed. He had been a bit too free with the scotch so now we had a problem on our hand. But somehow, we managed to drag a reluctant Subroto all the way to IRRI and get him over the fence because the main gate was locked. The great samosa party was still talked about 30 years later but never repeated. It was the only time different nationalities came together and had great fun.
I think it was in December that one of the Indian fellows announced that he was getting married to a Filipina. I was to be his best man. He was finishing up his doctoral program and others were not far behind. Subroto, Suranjeet and Laksman Lal would also finish their programs and return to India in the coming months.
Then one day Dr. Singh returned from his innumerable foreign trips and asked to see my experiment. The experiment was not doing well as was quite evident to anyone but he was not interested in the reasons. Sure, everyone had labor problems those days but that should have made me try harder.
I was as disappointed as he but said that I had learned something out of this experience and now I was planning to go back to India.
Dr. Singh said that he was not convinced that I did my best. He said that he saw a potential in me and thought that I could do better given the right circumstances. I listened to his sermons. After all he was the head of the agronomy department. In research no result is negative because one can learn also from negative results. Anyway, my stay at IRRI had come to an end so I began to pack my bags.
But Dr. Singh kept on delaying my departure and one day said that I should fly to Naga City in the Bicol region and see the rice research potential in the area and mostly talk to farmers to see their reaction to on farm trials. He knew this was my strongpoint because of my experience in Vietnam and Algeria. I did not even know where Naga City was.
So, one day I flew to Naga and from there went to Pili. It is the capital of the Camarines Sur province which is a vast rice growing region. There I visited many farms and talked to many farmers about the possibility of doing on farm research. They were enthusiastic and said they welcomed any help from IRRI in growing a better crop because they believed that IRRI was the centre of new technology. I was very impressed by what I found and reported back to IRRI . Now the problem arose of funding the outreach program and the whole concept was put on hold for a while.
One day I went to see Dr. De la Cruz to find out if I was to stay or go back to India. He surprised me by saying that if Dr. Singh thought I was the right person for the program in Bicol, then he will see to it that funds are made available. He was the second person to recognize my strength and said so. The first person was OfCourse Dr. Singh. He said he had great plans for me and thought that I could do better working directly with the farmers.
I was a field agronomist and was at ease with farmers anywhere. There was no doubt that I felt happier working with farmers. The research station trials did not reflect the conditions and constraints faced by farmers.
Thus, the International Rice Agro Economic Network or IRAEN project got started and I was to head the program in the Bicol region. The economics, entomology and the statistics departments were involved as well. This was to be the biggest outreach project in the country with many sites, so I was excited to be a part of it from the beginning.
So, once again I left for Pili, but this time to look for a place to stay. I had met a girl called Myrna during my previous visit who had promised to look for an accommodation for me in town. She said there was a housing shortage but perhaps the next door neighbor could give me a room.
This is how I met Jasmine. Her father was the retired mayor of Pili, and they had an old but sturdy house in Pili on the main road. Myrna soon left after the introduction.
I saw in front of me a girl of extraordinary charm and beauty .She had perfect oval face, long shiny black hair but what impressed me most was her deep penetrating eyes that touched your soul. I remember that she wore white shorts and a printed blouse. I got tongue tied for the first time but somehow explained to her that I was from IRRI and needed a place to stay.
She said that she knew about IRRI and visited the place once. Her father was against the idea of a foreigner staying with them, but she said that she will convince her father to let me stay temporarily until I found other accommodation. I remember her saying that in that house her word was the command so I should not worry. She smiled very sweetly and invited me to have some ice cream. She said that she was trying to set up an ice cream shop in front of the house.
I do not remember what we talked about. I felt myself in a turmoil of unquantifiable proportion. I was a man of the world and had been to many countries , had known many people interesting or not but I had never met someone like Jasmine. There was a faint glimmer of hope in my heart that long search and wait was over and I had finally met my soul mate in this sweet and beautiful Bicolana.This was the dazzling moment of my life but I did not let it show on my face . Not yet anyway.
I did not dare to say anything lest I said something stupid and spoiled the moment so I mostly listened to her. She said that she had quit her job in a bank due to some disagreement with the management and was trying to set up an ice cream shop . She was a college graduate and majored in accounting.
Soon I moved in but her younger sister did not like me and was indifferent. Her elder sister who lived elsewhere also did not like the idea that Jasmine let a Boombai stay in the house. Filipinos call Indians Boombai for some reason. The family was devout Catholic and never had a foreigner stay with them. This was made possible because of Jasmine.
She and I hit off splendidly from the moment we met. One day she took me to Legaspi along with Myrna to show me the buried church in Cagsawa. The Mayon volcano loomed majestically but ominously nearby spewing smoke. At other times she introduced me to her friends in Naga City. I became more and more enchanted with her and spent long time talking to her in the evening .I never knew I had so much to talk about. Besides she always beat me in scrabble .
She said that she used to work in a bank in Naga where a jealous woman accused her falsely of something she did not do. When Jasmine demanded an apology and did not get it, she resigned although the management begged her to stay. Jasmine was a girl of extraordinary moral character and would not back down. I was very impressed by this steel in her.
In fact, I had never met anyone like her. One day we went to see a movie in Naga when I put my arms around her shoulder. She said that I was behaving as if I was her boyfriend, so I quickly withdrew feeling hurt. But she surprised me and smiled and held on to my arm. I never knew what the movie was all about. Something extraordinary had happened between us. I was head over heels in love with Jasmine. This news was not welcome by her family. Her younger sister said that the Boombais were not good people so Jasmine should have nothing to do with me. Her elder sister was also dead against and showed open hostility.
The opposition was building up so I had to find another place to live. Once again Jasmine came to my rescue and found me a foster family who happily took me in .The foster family knew that there were problems but said that in time everything will work out fine. They were very kind and loving people.
Mr. Castillo liked me like his own son and told me how he had survived the death march of Bataan during the last war. Thousands had died on that march after the fall of Corregidor when the Japanese had rounded up Americans and Filipino fighters and forced them to march several hundred kilometers.
In the meantime, I had written to mom in Sri Ram Pur and asked her blessing for our marriage. The news must have caused a storm back there, but my steadfast brother Nirmal came to my rescue and convinced mom to let me live my own life. Finally, after a long wait, I received her letter in which she wrote in English that Jasmine would be most welcome to the family. This was all I needed.
I rushed to the bank in Pili where Jasmine had found a job and showed her the letter. She read it many times but could not really believe that it was true. I told her that I was going to visit her family that evening and propose marriage to her and seek approval of her parents. She literally went red in the face and disappeared somewhere in the back room.
When I told Mrs. Castillo about it, she said that it was indeed a very good news and there was nothing to worry about . She will handle everything. So in the evening we trooped to her house where a party was waiting. The marriage was a very serious matter that required very careful consideration. Jasmine was nowhere to be seen.
Now the interview began in earnest. The old Mr. Luis said that he did not like the idea of his daughter marrying a foreigner and a non-Catholic at that. The non-Catholic part was the hardest nut to crack or so it seemed. He asked if it was true that Indians had four wives etc. Mr. Castillo interceded on my behalf frequently and Mrs. Castillo said that she truly believed that it was a heavenly marriage proposal. Obviously, she had developed great faith in me. I had not known Jasmine for over four months when we talked of marriage.
Finally, a priest was called in to sort out the problem of religion. Her father said that he personally had no objection to this marriage except that I was a non-believer, so I had to accept the Catholic faith first. The priest promised to make a good Catholic out of me in a short time if I so agreed. I did. There was nothing to stop me from marrying Jasmine. No condition was too great.
My ancestors must have turned over in their funeral pyres, but I had found my soul mate and had the blessing of my mom.
I accepted to their great relief and at this point Jasmine was called in. She came down very shyly and sat in one corner not even looking at me. Her father then told the gathering very eloquently that he agreed to our marriage as soon as I was converted. I asked to marry her on the 15th of July, but she said July 23rd was her choice. It was the year 1975 and in January I did not even know where Pili was, Camarines Sur. This is what I call destiny.
So, the date was joyously agreed upon by everyone and the cake and drinks were served. Jasmine was so surprised that I had agreed to give up my religion for her, but I said that it was a small price to pay. Besides I had an appointment with the old toothless priest to keep.
The very next day I went to see the priest and told him frankly that I was converting to Catholicism only to satisfy the condition Jasmine’s father had imposed. In my heart I was never going to be anything other than what I was, so I was not going to keep the Catholic routine of going to Church and reading the Bible etc. I had read the Bible anyway.
The old priest saw in me a very obstinate fellow and said that it was of no use being a Catholic unless I welcomed Christ in my heart. I agreed and said that I was being very honest upfront. I was now ready to be a Catholic if after all I told him, he still wished me to go ahead.
He shook his head and said, “what’s the use” and promised to talk to the father of Jasmine to convince him that we should be allowed to marry without any precondition. He finally gave in and asked us to prepare for our marriage.
I had never known such joy in my life. This news spread to IRRI like wildfire and was received by everyone there with a great deal of surprise. They could not believe that I was serious because Jasmine and I had met only a few months ago. At that time Dr. Singh came to Bicol to see my experiments and said that he was very pleased with the results. I had worked awfully hard these 6 months, so all the sites were excellent. I expected great harvest and data. But he also said that he had heard about my impending marriage and advised me to think it over.
He said that many of his friends who married outside their country and religion had ended in failures so it was a serious matter indeed. When I said that we were determined to get married, he said that he wished us well.
Jasmine and I had now less than one month to prepare for our marriage. Contrary to Filipino tradition of lavish marriage and incurring debt, we decided that it was going to be a simple wedding and we were not going to start our new life with debt. We were going to pay for everything. She appreciated my principle. She said that our wedding was going to be unique because we will not seek sponsors. It was the Filipino tradition to round up as many sponsors as possible who would then contribute financially.
We did not need sponsors. Whatever money I had managed to save from my IRRI stipend had to suffice. I had a gown made for her that I designed including the embroidery which a gifted lady in Ba Ao town made for her. She also made a Barong Tagalog for me and embroidered a sheaf of wheat in the front that I had drawn for her. We had promised that our wedding will be unique in every respect.
So, we carefully planned everything. Now I understood why she wanted us to get married in the middle of the week instead of traditional Sunday because in a Sunday wedding many people would have showed up invited or not. We restricted our guest list to 100. Her father was worried because he knew that we had no sponsors. Whoever got married without sponsors?
Jasmine and I designed a very unique wedding invitation card that simply said that my mother invites you to the wedding of her son to Jasmine, daughter of Mr. Luis at the Pili Church on July 23rd 0f 1975.
Nothing else. There was to be no flower girl and maids except Myrna who carried the veil and Subroto who was my best man carrying the rings. No one had seen a wedding card like this. It was simple and elegant, but it broke all the rules that no Filipino could dare to break.
Jasmine carried a bouquet of rice plants showing the golden sheaf of grains that my farmers had made for her. It was a total departure from any tradition local or not, but we were ecstatic. She had insisted that I shave off my Ho Chi Minh beard and mustache so on the appointed day I showed up at the old Pili church in my Barong with wheat sheaf embroidery and she came in her dazzling white gown holding the bouquet of rice. The peeling paint and leaky roof of the church with its shabby furniture and plastic flowers faded away as I had my eyes only on the beautiful girl in white who showed heroic courage to marry me.
She came in on her father’s arm and did not look at me. She was lovely. She walked slowly to the altar where I waited for her and together, we kneeled in front of her classmate priest. The ceremony was not very long although it may have seemed that way to us. Finally, we were pronounced man and wife. At this point I took out a pearl necklace and put it around her swan neck. The cameras clicked and she beamed with smile. Jasmine was my wife at last.
I think it was the best achievement in my life. To find her and marry her in six months’ time when in January I did not even know where Pili was in itself nothing short of miraculous. Everything changed forever from day that day for both of us. She was the dream girl I waited and searched for so long.
They tried to get me married in India. My sister Annapurna was persistent, but I said that I was not ready. I said that someday I will find my dream soul mate I do not know where, but she will be everything I wished for in a life partner. They laughed derisively hearing my daydreams. Jasmine would prove them all wrong in time.
Our relationship was founded on trust and understanding. We instinctively felt that we were right for each other so waiting further was a waste of time. Her friends were surprised.
The day after our marriage we took the train to Manila from where we took the bus to Baguio up in the highlands. The week in Baguio was the best part of our life full of romance and love. We went to see the beautiful sites , took endless photos and bought some souvenirs spending all of our money. I was confident that the IRRI will soon give me the stipend .
But when we arrived in Los Banos, the IRRI cashier had a surprise waiting for us. He said that the stipend would be delayed due to bank holidays. Now we were in trouble because I did not have enough money to return to Pili. At this time Subroto started passing the hat around to collect whatever the poor scholars at the end of the month could come up with and somehow collected the train fare. He was really my best man.
By the way, Subroto would soon finish his doctoral program and return to India where he would later become the vice chancellor of the famous agricultural university in Bengal. He would rise very high indeed. But sadly I have lost contact with him.
Dr Singh welcomed Jasmine and gave a very nice party at his house in her honor. She looked lovely in the pink embroidered gown that I had designed for her and charmed everyone with her beauty and sweet nature. We were very warmly received by everyone although at first some people had shown some reservation.
But I was the third Indian to marry that year. The second person to marry was a close friend of mine called Surendra who married a nice girl from Los Banos . The fourth person was an American who had arrived in the Philippines at the same time as I so in that sense the year 1975 was a remarkable year for the IRRI scholars .
I had only begun to understand a wonderful girl called Jasmine. She lived up to every challenge we encountered and did it with grace like when one day I told her that I wished to continue studies at the University of the Philippines for a doctoral degree with or without IRRI support, she agreed and said that she will find a job to support me .
I was getting disillusioned with IRRI at that point .I had worked for over one year with them doing extensive and very promising research in rice but it did not get me anywhere professionally. Surely, I had picked up some valuable experience, but no one cared for just experience. One had to have a degree like Ph.D. to get anywhere. In September of 1975, IRRI asked to me help in the training of some people in agronomy research for a month.
So Jasmine and I set up our first rented house , just a one room affair with big spiders and cockroaches thrown in to liven up our shabby room in Los Banos. We just had a small one burner hot plate, an old bamboo bed and a rickety table to begin with but we were happy. She took everything in stride and set out to find a job immediately. I had been in the mean time accepted by the graduate school to start my coursework in November of that year.
I knew that Ph.D. was a long struggle and probably longer when we had no sponsor to pay for all the expenses but there was no backing off now. Dr.Singh at IRRI had closely followed the developments and was worried. One day he asked me how I was doing and how I was going to pay for a Ph.D. degree with a new wife and all the responsibilities that entailed.
I just shrugged and said that somehow we will try to manage it all although I really did not know how. I was determined not to ask for anything. I had never asked for IRRI to send me to Bicol and did not ask for any extension to my fellowship so I was not going to ask now. It was my pride.
But Dr. Singh was a very kind hearted man and genuinely believed in me and what I could achieve as a researcher. He had seen the excellent research fields in Bicol where I had toiled under the hot sun for months and he wanted to do something so one day he called me back to his office and said that IRRI was very pleased with my ability to do superb research and was ready to offer me a full fellowship for a Ph.D. program.
I was naturally very surprised because I was not expecting anything from IRRI so I asked if there were any preconditions. Dr. Singh smiled and said that actually there was a condition. IRRI wanted me to go back to Bicol to continue the excellent work that I had started there after I had completed my coursework at UPLB. I was very happy. This is what I loved most. I loved to work with farmers and was eager to return to Bicol region, so I gladly accepted the IRRI offer after consulting with Jasmine.
Soon she found a job at a bank in Los Banos, and I got very busy with my graduate studies. We were newly married, yet I found little time for her because the graduate studies were very demanding. She was also busy with her new job in the bank. We by the dint of luck found a better house and a good maid and were very glad to leave that rat, spider and cockroach infested room. Things were certainly looking up for us. I still consider 1975 as the best year in our life.
We set up the new household soon and put-up colorful curtains. She turned out to be an excellent homemaker. We bought a TV and IRRI loaned us a big refrigerator and stove. It was really nice to live on our own. I found the load of a graduate student heavy but managed to get good grades and made steady progress.
Surendra was also a student now and made quick progress in his doctoral studies. Others had left for India and one fellow went to Nigeria as a post-doctoral fellow so only Surendra and I would be left at IRRI. We had a great deal in common. We came from the same state of UP in India and we both had married here and now were studying for our doctoral degree under IRRI sponsorship. We bonded easily and would form a lifelong friendship. We both ended up living in Los Banos thanks in no small measure to him but I will get to that part later in the story.
There is not much to write about those days in Los Banos except that we made a few friends like the Rosenthals of Germany and others but mostly we were busy doing our own things and did not have much time for anything else. I did not get to spend as much time with her as I would have liked ,busy as I was with studies but she never complained . We knew that each semester was bringing us closer to our goal.
Then the day came for my comprehensive exam. My American friend Robert Springstein had warned me that the comprehensive exam was the most difficult part of the program so I should prepare for it well. My soil science professor who was also a member of my advisory board suggested that I ask for a written test from each of the board members and then go for the viva. It was an excellent advice. Although only three out of four members agreed, it was not bad at all.
I took the exams and did as best as I could, but it was not good enough for one of them. During viva he asked me again the same question to which I promptly answered correctly this time and showed the equation on the blackboard. He was surprised and said how come I did not answer in the written test. I just smiled sheepishly and said that the exam was a few days ago and I had enough time to find the answer since then.
All the members broke up in great laughter. The rest of the viva was a piece of cake. They all congratulated me and said that the great hurdle for me was over . Jasmine soon showed up with a huge can of ice cream to celebrate. This was also the tradition in the scholar’s room. She obviously had more confidence in me than others and said that she knew I was going to pass my exams.
Now I was free to go back to Pili and start the research for the dissertation. Jasmine began to have a glow on her face and one day confided that she was going to be a mother. It was the most thrilling news we could have had. It was also high time for her to quit her job and return to Bicol where she could get complete rest.
So, I returned to Pili and soon found a nice house to rent. She was happy to have a nice house and more rooms in a quiet neighborhood. I fixed up the mosquito screens on the windows and hired a maid. Soon I put up a fence around the house and planted some flowers and fruit trees. It was a lovely house compared to the rat holes we had lived in Los Banos.
Soon, I started in earnest the grinding routine of field work but luckily IRRI had provided me with a jeep this time, so it was easier to move around. The farms were quite far from each other, and I did not have to stand-by the roadside with my sprayer and sack of fertilizer for the buses. I thoroughly enjoyed the work although it was tiring. This is what I loved doing in Vietnam and Algeria and now here in the Philippines. It is no secret that one does a good job when he enjoys doing it. The results were superb making everybody happy most of all IRRI. I felt very happy with my work and blessed because of Jasmine.
Then one day in June of 1977, she went into labour and soon our first child was born. We called him Ashis. He was healthy and perfect. He was long for a child and had silky brown hair. Mind you I said long because we could not measure his height yet but later, he will grow into a 6 feet 2 inches lad. It was a new experience for both of us and often we just looked at him while he slept. He did not look like Bill Cosby’s lizard at all and grew steadily into a lovely child day by day.
We called him Ashis, an unusual name for a male child in the Philippines but it meant a blessing. My folks back in India did not like his name and said that a child should be given another name but for us it was Ashis.
He grew almost too rapidly but he was lucky to have a full-time mother and unlucky to have a part time father. My work was very tiring, but I got excellent data that somehow made up for the hard work. From planting to harvesting to data tabulation to planning for the next season was an endless cycle that drained my energy, but I kept going. The terrible heat of the scorching and relentless sun made it worse, but I found very good laborers who worked often late to finish the job.
Without these boys, I would have never been able to do so much work. They worked hard and seldom complained. IRRI paid them low wages, but I fought hard to get them a raise. My farmers were the main partners. They worked hard and were very pleased with the high yielding rice varieties that I was testing. They were my friends and had greatly enjoyed being invited to my marriage.
In the month of March of 1978, I went back to Los Banos to begin the arduous task of data tabulation and the writing part of three years of field data but first I had to find a suitable house to rent. This time I was lucky and found a decent house in San Antonio part of the town. Soon Jasmine came and was very pleased that I had found a nice house so soon and got busy setting up the house again. She did not know that this will be the trend for the next 25 years and we would often uproot from one place to settle somewhere else.
Ashis was beginning to stand up in the crib and say a few strange words but mostly he played by himself and seldom cried. The maid knew the trick to play Andy William’s Moon River or O Danny Boy on the tape and soon the kid would be fast asleep. Infact Moon river made me sleepy too.
I had arrived back at IRRI at a bad time. Dr. Singh asked everyone to pitch in to complete the annual report that was overdue, so I helped although I had my own work to do. I had bought an old motorbike and stayed late in the department writing the draft of my dissertation on an old electric typewriter until the wee hours of the night. Often Jasmine came and read the draft or dictated the tables or figures.
She cross checked the data and helped me hour after hour while I labored. She looked over my shoulder to correct spelling mistakes and I was grateful. I knew it would have taken longer without her help. She could be defined in two words as the ideal partner.
One day the Filipino staff of the department decided to organize an excursion to Dagupan beach and Pangasinan up north, so we were happy to get out of Los Banos for a change. We needed a break from the monotonous and boring work of writing scientific theses. Dagupan beach was clean and very nice, but the hot sun burned my skin that later peeled off like a big handkerchief. The hundred islands were also very nice. There one could have his own island for the day if only a boat was available. The water was blue and clear. On the way you would meet the divers who brought up conch shells of various kinds and sold them to tourists.
Then the next day we went to Pangasinan where the farmers raise fish in their backyard ponds. One pond was drained for us to catch some fish, but we caught more mud than fish as the Filipinos pelted everyone with mud. It was like Holi but messier. Still, it was fun. The Pangasinan farmers kept neat houses and planted all kinds of shrubs and decorative plants around their houses. They are very hard-working people like in Bicol.
Back in Los Banos I invited some of my colleagues to an evening of fun which was fine except that a thief walked off with my motorbike while we were toasting each other. There is an epidemic of thievery in Los Banos, and I had my expensive Tissot stolen twice, first in Pili and recovered but this time it was gone forever. Now it was my motorbike.
Jasmine went to the police station and reported the theft although I had little hope of seeing my bike again. But the next morning a fellow showed up with my bike and said that the thief had hidden it under a culvert where some kids had spotted it and reported. It was amazing. I was glad to give the fellow a case of beer.
Jasmine gave me the wonderful news one day when she said that our second child was on the way. We knew it was a girl and named her Jayanti long before she was due.
Soon a telex arrived from Ottawa. I had applied for a position as an agronomist so an organization in Canada now invited me to go to an extended tour of West Africa where I was to visit Mali to see for myself the living conditions and meet the Malian counterparts. This was in July of 1978 when I was getting ready for the final defense of my dissertation, so the timing was bad. I just could not go anywhere at that time. They were gracious and said they will wait for a more appropriate time.
Now the day arrived when I defended my research work successfully and was pronounced a Doctor of Philosophy although believe me when I say that an agronomist is far from being a philosopher. We all rejoiced that day because it meant an end to years of studies and hard work, term papers and exams. Now we could get on with our lives properly with a job and a decent pay. The Canadians obliged and soon I left for Dakar, Senegal.
But my first stop was Nairobi where I had to spend two days to catch up the Pan Am flight to Dakar. Upon arriving in Nairobi, I was told that they had left my luggage behind in Bombay by mistake. I had no change of clothes or even a toothbrush but found a hotel room on the road to Kampala for the night. If you have never been to Kenya, then you will only think that it is the safari country which it is but there is abject poverty everywhere.
The hotel provided a plate of mashed potato mixed with boiled dent corn, hard peas and slices of raw onion and called it their main dish. The dent corn is not called dent corn for nothing. It will dent your teeth even if you boil it for hours. So, I had a miserable dinner. The dirt hovels where they sold foul smelling beer in dim light was not very inviting either, so I went to look for some food downtown and found a place selling samosas.
This was another mistake. They gave me a plate of french fries dripping in oil and a few beef filled samosas also dripping in blackish oil so I left the whole plate to someone who appreciated it more. It was disgusting.
The very next day as I was walking somewhere, a fellow suddenly dropped a bundle of something that landed near my feet and walked away so I put my foot on it and called the fellow. Perhaps he did not know that he dropped something. The something turned out to be a huge bundle of bank notes wrapped in dirty rags. A kid of indeterminate age suddenly appeared and grabbed the bundle, but I was faster and grabbed the kid instead. Now a tussle began, and a crowd began to form around us. The kid kept on saying that I should let him go because today he got lucky.
All of this happened very fast in a matter of seconds. I still held on to the kid and called again the fellow who was now distant. The kid said that he will split the loot with me if I cared to go with him to the public toilet so I did some fast thinking. Whoever carries so much money and casually drops it? If I called the police, they will arrest me for complicity and pocket the money. It was probably stolen and passed on to the gang members in passing. I just happened to be on the scene.
If I got greedy and went to the toilet to share the loot, I probably would meet others waiting there who would promptly shove a knife in my stomach. This was Nairobi and I was an Indian. The Police did not like the Indians. So, I let the kid go. I did not want the money. It was probably the wisest thing I did. Who knows what would have happened if I had become greedy?
The Nairobi to Dakar flight is a long one but I was able to get on it with my luggage that had finally arrived after a few terse telexes saying that the passenger very irate, please expedite etc. One could see the vast Lake Victoria and dry African savanna from the air. The stops were many like Lagos, Robert’s field in Monrovia, Conakry, Gambia and finally Dakar.
This is where I was the meet the representative of the Canadian firm and travel to other parts of Africa with him. He arrived punctually and together we started on our first leg of this long journey. Bamako is the capital of Mali where they hoped to set up a farming system’s project in the south east corner of that country and I was supposed to be their agronomist .
So one day we drove from Bamako to Sikasso which is the project site. It is a 400 km long road but one must remember that Mali is a big country. We drove through featureless brush country with a few villages here and there until we came to Bougouni nearly halfway on the road to Sikasso.
Bougouni is the only town between Bamako and Sikasso, so we stopped here for a few minutes. It was a shabby and dirty town with a few shops and a poor restaurant run by a Lebanese. People in rags wandered around or squatted listlessly under trees to get some shade. I began to wonder what Sikasso was like. I was to soon find out.
Sikasso is a small town near the border of Upper Volta which they now call Burkina Fasso. The Ivory Coast border is some 70 kms away and just south of Sikasso is the border of Guinea. I would have more time to know Sikasso and its inhabitants later but from what I saw in a day, it was not very reassuring, and I started thinking if it would be wise to bring Jasmine and two kids here.
From there we went to Ouagadougou and on to Niamey in Niger. We met and talked to a lot of people who did agricultural development work there. All these countries looked miserable with dirt roads and poor people in rags. Only a few foreigners drove around in fancy cars, but the locals just sat around under the trees to escape the heat or swam in the Niger river that looked inviting but full of larvae of a fly that caused blindness.
Women wore tie dye colorful clothes with embroidery but could not hide their goiters or signs of malnutrition. Men wore homespun cotton robes. In Dakar, Bamako, Ouagadougou or Niamey one always saw Africans selling small handicraft near the hotels where the foreigners stayed. They even called me blanc to my surprise but to an African you were a blanc meaning a white person if you did not have kinky hair.
There were some women in provocative dresses lounging in hotels and looked at guests suggesting they too were selling something. I was a bit discouraged by what I saw in Senegal, Mali and elsewhere but that is why there was this project that would bring some help to the poor. I had lived in poor countries before, so misery was nothing new to me. Only the scale appalled me.
In Montreal I found that once again my luggage was left behind by the airline, this time in Paris. It was cold in Ottawa, but I had to stay a few days to complete the formalities of appointment and medical checkup. The Canadians were thorough on formalities and legal-size contract papers but finally all was done except that no one bothered with the fact the salary was very low and well below the international standard for a Ph.D. I suppose I had to start somewhere so I signed and flew back to Manila.
Back in Los Banos I made preparations for us to leave for India where Jayanti was to be born. Some of my luggage was sent to Bamako and we soon left for India. My stay of over four and a half years in the Philippines thus came to an end but think of the accomplishment!
I came to the Philippines only for six months and ended up staying four and a half years, met Jasmine and got married, obtained a Ph.D. degree in agronomy under scholarship and had a beautiful boy named Ashis and waited eagerly for our daughter Jayanti to arrive in January of 1979. My parents would have been proud of me. My dad died a long time ago, but I was not so sure about mom and others. I was to soon find out.
This was the first time for Jasmine to travel abroad but she adjusted well in spite of her pregnancy. Now she was visiting the country of her husband and was about to meet with his relatives. I did not know how she felt but I am sure she was apprehensive not knowing anything about India or Indians.
My concern was to give her as must rest as possible before Jayanti decided to arrive and provide her with best medical care available because Jayanti had decided to come to earth with her feet first as the ultrasound photos showed. So, one fine day we landed at the small municipal airport of Sri Ram Pur.
The reception at my parent’s was restrained by Indian and certainly Bengali standard specially for a new bride. Clearly mother was disappointed that I had decided to marry a foreigner and outside my religion but soon they were all charmed by Jasmine except the sister-in-law Sabita. She became jealous because Jasmine was now getting all the attention in the family where until now, she had reigned supreme.
Jasmine was magnanimous to her and tried to help her in the kitchen, but she remained aloof and often compared Ashis with her daughter saying that she had better potty habits and eating habits. But Ashis was adorable, and people could not have enough of him. His puffy Rudy cheeks and his effort to speak a few words charmed everyone to no end. He also had very good potty habits and ate his food without any fuss whatsoever.
He became the darling of the family, but this did not endear him to Sabita. I was not expecting a miracle because after all I did marry a non-Bengali and a non-Indian, so a bit of upheaval was expected. I assuaged Jasmine by saying that soon after the birth of Jayanti we would leave India for Mali.
Sabita was a very ignorant woman and did not believe Jasmine when she told her that we knew long time ago that Jayanti was coming and that she had a breech position. The Filipino doctor had calculated almost precisely the day she would be born but had warned that breech delivery was a bit dicey.
She would laugh to the face of Jasmine and said that no one could tell the sex of the baby until it was born and that the kids must “cook” inside for 10 months and 10 days before coming out. She had never heard of ultrasound and other developments in the medical field. We often encountered such attitudes among Indians. What they did not know, they did not believe because they believed they knew everything there was to know.
I told Jasmine not to say anything. Sabita was a classic case of ignorance, superstition and low education. It was a bad combination. Jasmine was a college graduate with extensive experience in accountancy, but I admired her humility. She was everything the other woman was not so the contrast was not lost on others. However, this created more problems than it solved.
My mom was an astute politician and seldom said what she felt or felt what she said. On the surface of it, she welcomed Jasmine and gave her a gift of gold bracelet and a necklace. Jasmine was surprised because in the Philippines such gifts were considered luxury, but the Bengali tradition called for the gold ornaments for the bride. She also received several exquisite saris that she gradually learned to wear but never could manage well reverting back to her long gowns.
The language was the main barrier because no one spoke English except Nirmal although Sabita could somehow express her feelings through broken language, so Jasmine felt lonely and isolated. My job was to get her out for a walk every evening even though she hated it but went along anyway. The exercise was necessary.
Finally on January 6th of 1979, baby Jayanti decided to come with the help of an expert lady doctor. We were delighted that she was so perfect with pert nose and curly wisps of brown hair. She was a bit underweight, but she puffed up rapidly. The comment of Sabita was very predictable. She said that the kid is dark and may not turn out to be better than average looking. This was a very cruel thing to say to new parents, but she was a cruel woman who had decided long ago that she did not like Jasmine.
She also said that she did not like the fact the Jasmine came to Sri Ram Pur pregnant because this meant extra work for her. But we did not impose in anyway on the family. I paid for all expenses and took care of her and the babies. I gave them bath and made them sit on potty and fed them spoon by spoon the baby food. They never cried in the middle of the night as most babies do and were wonderful and perfect babies. No parents could be prouder. Jasmine was regaining her health and looked lovelier.
Jayanti had aquiline nose and a wide forehead. She was a very pretty baby with pencil sharp eyebrows and tulip red lips. Her hair was curly and became darker after a month and her fingers even at that age looked slender and long. Ashis was no less and already a pet of the family. Jayanti slept a lot and took to bottle feeding when she got lazy to breast feed. She gained weight rapidly and was something to watch.
But our time in Sri Ram Pur was not exactly pleasant due to constant clash of culture. I found the atmosphere stifling that I had broken out of a long time ago. I went alone to work in a dangerous country like Vietnam, had gone on to get more education in the United States at my own expense, had worked in Algeria they knew nothing about and had now returned to Sri Ram Pur with a doctorate degree and a beautiful family and a job waiting in a country they had never even heard of called Mali. I could not readjust to Sri Ram Pur again.
They also knew that I made my own decisions and decided what was best for us. I could not ignore the nasty comments of Sabita, but we were going to leave soon and perhaps not to return so it made little or no difference. I tried to protect Jasmine as much as I could but often, I found her misty eyed.
Annapurna liked Jasmine but insisted that the kids must be called Buntee and Milli. I explained to her one day that there was nothing wrong with their name, but she sulked. She had vowed to make a Bengali out of Jasmine and insisted that she wear sari and put on sindoor which is a vermilion powder Hindu women put where they part their hair. She said to me that I should buy her more jewelry because a wife reflects the wealth of her husband, but it was not Jasmine’s style. She is a simple girl and I love her for it.
Likewise, mom started calling Jasmine by the name of Jyotsna which means moonlight, but Jasmine could never pronounce it so Jasmine she remained. Her first visit with my folks lasted three and a half months and I cannot honestly say whether she enjoyed it or not but she did get good medical attention and Jayanti did arrive without any problem. This was my sole comfort. If Jasmine was a mismatch for the traditional and superstitious Bengali society, it was no great loss on our part. They missed the chance of getting to know a wonderful girl whose heart was pure and who only wanted to be accepted.
So In the month of February, we flew off to Paris and then on to Bamako. Jayanti was 40 days old but an angel. She slept in the hammock in the plane most of the time. Ashis was too young to enjoy flying such a long distance but did not give any trouble. Jasmine had regained her strength and braced herself for the new life in a new country trusting solely her loving husband.
On the plane I began wondering how she will cope with the primitive life in Sikasso taking care of two infants, but I had underestimated her gift of adjustment and sheer resolve to live through almost anything. She did manage Sri Ram Pur so perhaps Mali would be better. I certainly hope so.
Note : The following links are given here for you to read Anil’s biography in French, Japanese, German, Spanish and Russian languages as well.
Note: My blogs are also available in French, Spanish, German and Japanese languages at the following links :