Source : Google photo of SriRampur that holds world’s biggest religious fair
Note: If you use Microsoft Edge as your browser to read this blog then you will see the letter A on top right. If you click on this letter A and select a voice from the menu as American English, it will then read the blog to you if you have reading difficulties.
Formative years : India : 1957 to 1967
Now I will leave behind the early childhood and move onto something more serious . In fact one is not supposed to get serious at this stage but I was an impatient kid who could not wait.
For example I could not wait to pass the high school exam and get to college or I could not wait to see our new house under construction come up among many other things because I was always daydreaming and wished that they come true soon.
It was a sad day when we finally packed up everything and left the lane for another part of the town . I knew that we were leaving behind not only the childhood friends and a familiar place but also changing our lives drastically by the act of moving into our own home for the first time. No more leaky roof and monkeys destroying our books. From now on there was no looking back which some of my friends felt more than they let on.
Although we now lived in a different part of town, I used to go back to the lane but something had snapped in our relationship and so soon. The kids envied us because they knew we had a brand new house and a garden while they were still very impoverished and lived in poor houses . They now found no time for me and made excuses so gradually I stopped going there. I think it was the same for Nirmal who tried hard to keep the old relationship but came to the conclusion that nothing was going to be the same anymore.
We were all growing up in different directions and the childhood phase was over . It was enjoyable while it lasted but now we were definitely on a new road . I learned later that the kids in that lane did not fare well in life and avoided us . My high school friends also became aloof although I tried to keep up with some of them for a while.
It was in the year 1957 when we moved into our new house which at first consisted of only three rooms , porch and a veranda at the back but father added two more rooms and a courtyard at the back later on. We did not have electricity but that did not matter. It was far better than that rented house. Here we could start our very own garden while Annapurna longed for the day when the trees would become big and we would sit under it on marble benches. We were naturally greatly excited and made new friends in the community rapidly. There was a park where kids played ball, gulli danda or cricket and I was welcome to join them. Here most people lived in their own houses and new houses were coming up all the time.
The next door neighbors were girls of my age and I visited them sometimes but now this was frowned upon by the tradition bound parents because we lived in a society where boys and girls did not mix . I could not have a girlfriend and go on a date because Bengali society is a closed one and does not allow such freedom .
Schools were also separated by sex now. I was still three years from passing High school so I continued going to my old school. Annapurna and I trudged along every morning together because her school was near my school and often I found her waiting at her school gate for me to return home together.
I was a diligent student so that excused a great deal of odd behavior in me but basically I became a loner and stayed with my studies. My parents thought of me as a serious albeit self centered person and seldom interfered in my affairs . The high school board exam was the highlight in 1960 which I passed with good grades and looked forward to college.
Kamal also passed high school and went on to college but he was a born rebel and often at odds with our parents over some issues. He was always in and out of trouble and never seemed to study but got good grades anyway because he was smart . When he passed away suddenly due to some illness , it left a great void in my heart that has not filled yet. He was only 21.
I loved Kamal .He taught me how to make a map of India using only geometry and endlessly typed my grade sheets and other certificates that I had to submit for entry to a college. One could not give originals hence the certified copies but he never complained. He brought me to my college on the first day in his bicycle and often did many many things for me.
He craved for attention from everybody but my parents were cruel to him for some reason and denied him the love he so much wanted. Given the chance he would have excelled in life but sadly that chance was never given to him.
I was not into love and attention business being a loner and cared less if my parents or others ignored me. I knew what I wanted by the time I was sixteen . I wanted to be admitted to the Sri Ram Pur Agricultural Institute but this was not to be because I did not have science subjects in high school. However, another college with the same curriculum admitted me where I stayed only one year and transferred to the Institute the second year without any problem .
These were my formative years . I was learning a great deal and fast yet I was basically a timid person with an intrinsic desire to break out of the mold of timidity. The Institute would play a crucial role in my life from now on.
The College has a lovely campus on the banks of the river and is always full of flowers and trees among which are scattered various buildings. In 1962 it had only about 500 students in all that included dairy diploma students, women taking home economics ,the agriculture students and the agricultural engineering students . It could be considered a small but very select college where very few students were admitted each year.To be admitted there was in itself a great feat because of the competition but I had no problem because I was a transfer student with excellent grades in some subjects.
But my good grades in agricultural engineering in the first year sort of got to my head and I foolishly applied for admission to the engineering department in the third year not knowing how tough it was going to be. Indeed it was very tough and only a few students passed that year so I learned my lesson the hard way and switched to agronomy after losing one valuable year. The decision to switch was a wise one because they would make a very good agronomist out of me in the future.
I studied hard and came out in the merit list the third and the fourth year which was the final year earning me a B.Sc.Ag degree from the University of Sri Ram Pur to which our college was affiliated.
Our professor was Mr. Dutta in the agronomy department and in time I became his favorite student although we were always in awe of prof.Dutta. He could be such a terror but basically he was a very kind hearted and jolly fellow and certainly the most respected professor on campus.
Dr. Chowdhary who was the head of the agronomy department was another great teacher who taught us agronomy as well as statistics.
He would always call me to solve a problem on the blackboard which some of the classmates did not like because of jealousy but I was the favorite student here as well. I would form a life long bond with Dr.Chowdhary .
I remember the day prof. Dutta took us all on a field trip by bicycle to various parts of Sri Ram Pur . He joked all along and called aloud anyone who lagged behind . We saw the grass research farm, dairies and many other places and had a great time. I still have a photo of the classmates .
Sadly it was to be our last outing with Prof. Dutta because suddenly he passed away due to heart failure. It was a great blow to us who loved him and collected some money to be used as a scholarship in his name but the money disappeared . By this time we graduated and left the campus for good never to meet again.
I almost forgot to mention that in the second year we went on an educational tour of 15 days and visited Mathura, Dehradun, Aligarh , Delhi and Saharanpur among other places with our economics teacher as guide.
I had a classmate called Susanto who was brought up by his father in a most orthodox way. Everyone made fun of the poor chap because he was such an oddity on campus but he was good natured and talked mile a minute on any subject whether he knew the subject or not. We called him chatterbox.
Even during our field trip the students took turns in making life difficult for him and one day emptied his footlocker that his mother had filled with dry food and all sorts of home made cookies. Susanto will later on get a doctorate degree and become a high official in the Bengal government.
At the College we used to have a period called fifth period when we used to invite outside guests to speak on some current topic and on other days had religious studies meaning Bible study or join a class called better citizenship class. But the days when we did not have a speaker, the students took over the floor and did whatever took their fancy.
Often it was a general knowledge contest or better still the extemporaneous speaking contest where you had to go up on the stage in front of cat calling and jeering boys and girls if you had the courage to face them and speak on a given topic for five minutes. Most did not last that long and were pelted with chalks and paper balls.
But there came a day when someone pushed me to the front so I had no choice but to go up on the stage .Now everyone waited to see what I would do next and I knew that they were ready with paper balls and chalks to pelt me with . The jeering had already started when I picked a topic from the hat and started to speak on it. The topic was “ What would I have done differently had I been the Queen Victoria “.This was a silly topic so I rejected it and asked for a second topic.
The next one I picked was “ The scandal of Kristine Keeler and Profumo “. Now this was more to my liking and I knew all about the scandal because the newspapers were full of it everyday. The UK defense minister Profumo was caught red handed cavorting with a prostitute called Keeler who probably was a spy of KGB and extracting information out of Profumo.
So I spoke for the required time with some trepidation and gradually warmed up to the subject to the amazement of the crowd. But the most interesting outcome of this adventure was that from then on I was no longer the timid person everyone knew and lost my inhibition . Now I could face any crowd and speak to them without any preparation because that is what extemporaneous speaking was all about. This ability would serve me well in the future when I had to speak in conferences or meetings with a group of farmers or any other crowd.
Just to be different was a need for me so I joined the religious class although I really did not care for it that much . It was only Bible reading and was meant for the Christians but I sat there anyway and learned some Bible stories .Later I would switch to the Moral class . I also used to join the Christian prayer meetings under the tree that the alcoholic pastor always led in the morning but this was not due to great religious feelings in me.
During my childhood I was led to believe that Shiva worship everyday was a good thing to do so I kept it up for more number of years than I can remember but that too was stopped one day because I felt that it was a meaningless chore for me. I had no reverence for Shiva in my heart.
Mom noticed but did not say anything. Unlike Christians, the Hindu families are extremely tolerant towards the religious attitudes of children and never force them to attend religious services or go to temples as a routine. It is the Hindu belief that religion is a very personal matter and should be left to the individual to decide what he wants to do or not to do.
But this very tolerance makes most Hindus very Hindu because their religion is not imposed on them .They like being Hindu because it comes from their heart . More than that it makes the next generation also tolerant to others.
In the second year at the Institute we had to join the National Cadet Corps or NCC and parade twice a week. This was after the classes and usually became the time for all kinds of mischief . I can hardly remember the time when I actually paraded like the rest of the students because I always found excuses to go to the dispensary to look at the beautiful lady doctor .
She of course knew that there was nothing wrong with me so I went to the dorm, changed into civilian clothes and watched the girls playing basket ball wearing very short skirts.
Then at the closing time I would again show up in my full regalia and quietly slip into the formation for the roll call and often would answer for the absentee friends by shouting Yes Sirrr . The absentee friends would thus owe me big time which I would later collect somehow. The best part was the tea and samosas that I never missed.
One day the commander asked who were the kids on Ramadan fast to which I promptly raised my hand. Now the Ahmeds and Mohameds were excused but I was asked to fall out. The kids had a wild time knowing that all my past antics had caught up with me so they jeered when the commander told me to run around the field with my 14 pound rifle held up high . This was painful and humiliating but I was naughty and this was the price to pay getting caught.
But on the whole NCC was fun. It gave us the chance to fool around a bit at the end of tiresome studies and 4 hour long chemistry lab work . Twice I joined the NCC camps once in Naini and the second time in Dehradun
at the foothills of the Himalaya mountains. Both camps were fun because I knew how to make the camp life exciting like that time in Dehradun but I am getting ahead of my story.
The first camp was near Sri Ram Pur and I hardly ever went to the parade and rifle exercises by pretending to be sick with stomach ache but eating well from other’s plates because sick kids were only given gruel that I threw away. This charade went on for a few days while the rest of them paraded cursing the heat and the training exercise . They cursed me heartily as well knowing that there was nothing wrong with me.
But one day the camp doctor got wise and reported me to the commander who promptly asked me to crawl on my elbows holding up the infernal rifle to the great amusement and hooting from the cadets. Luckily the very next day we the Bengali cadets approached the commander and asked to be excused from the camp because it was our national festivity of DurgaPooja.
This petition was granted so we left the camp giving fingers to the cadets who were on their way to the parade ground for more sweating.
In Dehradun camp I escaped with Ram Nath who was my classmate and a willing partner in this highly illegal activity. We went to Musoori which is a resort hill station , messed around the whole day and returned to Dehradun in the evening to find that the last train had left leaving us stranded there.
Now to get back to the camp which was in the middle of a forest , we persuaded an engine driver in the yard to give us a ride and told him not to stop in front of the camp but that is what he ended up doing anyway because he explained sheepishly that the engine was very heavy and took a lot to slow down and stop.
The camp guards were on the look out for the escapees and gave us a good chase because we were very visible in the moonlight but we somehow managed to hide and slip into our tents . The tents in the meantime had been reshuffled so we had trouble finding our tent but finally did and found the tent leader sitting and waiting for us . He said that he had to report us to the commander because it was his responsibility.
The next day we were asked to report to the commander for possible punishment but the commander just scolded us and said that he was personally responsible for the 10000 cadets that were attending the camp and if something bad happened to us, what he would say to our parents?
These were just some of the incidents that I thoroughly enjoyed because mischief was a part of our life when we were young. Infact the girls were no less and often tried to corner us if they could . When the new students arrived on campus from the railway station , we were always waiting for them and directed them promptly to the women’s dorms where the naughty girls took their bags upstairs and put them in some rooms. When the boys saw that there were bras and panties hanging everywhere , they had second thoughts and came down hurriedly.
But mostly it was just camaraderie and a bit of fooling around that helped us develop lasting bonds with some schoolmates.
During the third year a classmate called Ramesh met me near my house and said that he lived nearby. I did not know him well but soon we began to study together for the exams that were due. Ramesh was a real rascal and expert in cutting classes so he was ill prepared for the exams but he sincerely wanted to pass so we burned a lot of midnight oil, studied hard and both passed the exams. He even got better grades than I in some subjects proving that he was smart . The final year of our studies, Ramesh and I were inseparable . He always came by our house in the morning in his multicolor bicycle and together we pedaled to the Institute along with Susanto and Abhit . Abhit was the fancy one with his brand new shiny Sen Raleigh bicycle while we pedaled our worn out bikes with worn out tires.
Being a day scholar meant that we lived off campus and never joined any on campus activity other than NCC parade. There were many activities or games or movies but it was very difficult for us to stay after dark so we missed out a lot. My bicycle was also in bad shape with very worn out tires that one day gave way and I had to stay with some friends until the next day Susanto came to my rescue with a new tire that my pa had sent.
Ramesh the class cutter and pain in the neck of most profs turned out to be very successful in life. He would later get a Ph.D and work for a big fertilizer company in Delhi while Abhit would join the ministry of agriculture in Bengal where he would become a block development officer. But Susanto would rise the highest as mentioned earlier.
Others left no trace other than the graduation group photo that adorns our home now. The alumni association was weak and we all knew that we would rarely meet again India being so big .
In the fourth year of my studies something very dramatic happened that would change my life forever. I believe it was the month of April 1965 when I noticed a small advertisement on the notice board of our agronomy department . But to say that I noticed it the first time in April was wrong because I had seen it before but did not pay any attention to it until one day I started reading what it was all about.
It said that a non profit international philanthropic organization in the USA was looking for young agronomists to work in developing countries as volunteer and that a fellow called Lawrence had the necessary info and the application forms etc. He was a visiting scholar in our department.
I had seen him around but never talked to him. In India we did not generally speaking talk to foreigners but I decided to see him and find out more .
He turned out to be a very nice American who explained to me that he himself had been a volunteer in Laos and would be glad to assist me in any way he can. He gave me an application to fill out and said that he will mail it to the Washington office should I decide to apply.
He said that it would be a good opportunity for me to get some real life practical experience working in another country but could not say where I would be sent if selected .
So I took the application form home to think about it for a while and later decided that I needed Lawrence to help me fill it .He lived on campus with his wife Jane and a cute little baby called Jared. Jane was pretty and smiled a lot . So Lawrence helped me fill out the form and said that he will mail it with his recommendations and comments later.
A few months passed while I waited to hear from the Washington DC office but then one day a letter came from them saying that I was selected to go to South Vietnam as agronomist for two years and asked me to prepare my travel documents as soon as possible.
I can not express my feelings of that day because naturally I was very excited and told everybody about the letter and the offer. Lawrence was very pleased that I had been selected and said that I must go. But in those days in 1965 , there was a terrible war raging in Vietnam and the Americans were fighting the North Vietnamese in the name of fighting the communism. This was in the news papers everyday so everyone knew that Vietnam was not a place to go to at that time.
I told this to Lawrence but he assured me that many young people were working in Vietnam as volunteers in areas that were not dangerous and gave me many newsletters from them to read about what they were doing.
I was convinced and decided to apply for a passport. But no one else was convinced and said I was a fool to jump into a mess like that and should instead work in India by accepting the job that the Bengal Government had recently offered me in Malda .
I believe two or three other students were also accepted to go to Vietnam but they all backed out not willing to take such a drastic step in their life . Male children in India are very much protected by the family and seldom can go against the family wishes.
My family never sheltered me and as I had written earlier, never interfered in my decisions or plans although they were surprised just the same when I told them that I was to go to Vietnam .
No one had ever gone abroad in our family and the notion of jet travel, passport and visas were strange and foreign to them. My father at that time was seriously ill with cancer and had just returned from Kolkata after a major surgery in his mouth . He could hardly talk and was always in pain. He was a very sick man and had a short time to live . Certainly this was no time for me to go to Vietnam because the family needed my support and mom urged me to accept the job offer in Bengal.
But my father said that I was too young to work so it would be better if I took a graduate degree before starting to work .To go back to graduate school later would prove to be difficult . My mother did not like it but dad’s words were a command. He said I should forget about Vietnam.
I was very amazed because the money was being spent like water on dad’s medical treatments and if the family needed another earning member, it was now . Luckily Nirmal had just gotten a government job and Annapurna after passing the interview at the Public Service Commission also got a job of teaching in a nearby town . Shanti the eldest already had a job and dad still received his pension but the need for money was great due to heavy medical expenses so certainly it would have been a help to the family if I took a job instead of going to the graduate school.
At this time I was invited for an interview at the Air Head Quarters in Delhi and if successful, I would be admitted to the Air Force Academy to train as a fighter pilot. The Government would pay all the expenses. But this was not to be. My father said that the Air Force was not for me so the matter ended there because he always had the last word. I kept mum.
So I decided to go for the graduate studies and applied for admission in three different departments at the University and was accepted by two while the College also considered me for admission to the agricultural extension course. The competition was great but I had good grades so admission was not a problem. The problem was money so I accepted to be admitted to the College grad school only if they could give me a part time job to cover my tuition . This they did so my studies began again in earnest.
I could not ask my parents for the school expenses so it had to be my own effort .I did not particularly like the course but I had no other choice because the university did not offer any financial help.
The graduate level studies were not difficult . There were six students in all but they were a lot older than I because they had taken study leave from their jobs . I was only 22 and secretly hoped that someday I will really be able to go to Vietnam but my passport never came.
Six months went by and still I could not get my passport . I was in fact determined to ditch my studies as soon the passport came because the Washington people kept on encouraging me and not give up. They sent me 150 dollars for my clothing allowance which was a lot of money in those days and said that they will assist me from Saigon about my visa but first I have to get a passport.
In the mean time I had also applied for a National Loan Scholarship that the Government decided to offer me so that helped a lot but in spite of my studies going well and the scholarship money, these were my darkest days because it became widely known that I was trying to get a passport but not getting anywhere.
People whom I had never known stopped me on the street daily to ask if my passport had come. Often they got mixed up between passport and visa and did not know which came first because they were small town folks who had never been anywhere. It got to the point where I used to hide from people who tormented me daily and fervently hoped that the damn passport comes.
When I wrote a letter to the regional passport officer , I always got a standard reply to the effect that it was under consideration and I will be notified once a decision is made in due course of time. But the time was passing and I was getting more and more restless everyday.
The neighbors did not let up either. The old ladies would tell my mother that she was heartless to allow me to go to Vietnam in the middle of the horrible war there so my poor mother suffered silently. She did not know what to say or do being such a simple lady.
But the year 1966 started out with a great tragedy again in our family when my dad died in January. He had greatly suffered due to his illness and his sufferings were over but dad occupied a very big place in our heart and his absence was sorely felt. He kept money under his pillow and gave me some to go and see a movie or something even when he could not talk and winced with pain of cancer. He was my hero and a great dad . I spent so much time with him as a child going fishing with him and running errands for him.
It was hard to imagine our family without him and now he was gone after a long period of suffering .No doctor or expensive treatment could save him. I was only four months away from my final exams but I could not concentrate on studies . Yet the exams came as scheduled and I passed with flying colors and took the first position in the merit list which in other countries is known as Dean’s list. Ma was proud and very happy .
But in July there was a surprise waiting for me when our principal called me one day to his office and asked if it was true that I had applied for a passport I said yes and was preparing to go to Vietnam.
He got very angry and said that I was ruining my career to chase after such folly and should leave the studies .
Now I was the top student in his class and thought that it was strange that he should talk to me that way . If he had only been more diplomatic in saying that such a decision as to go to Vietnam should be carefully considered and that I should take some time to think about it and in the mean time finish the graduate course , things would have been different.
But his approach was harsh and it never worked with me. I am a very determined person so a softer approach was probably the best idea but he was arrogant being the principal and he treated me badly so I quit.
In fact it made me more determined to go to Vietnam and only then I decided to go to Lucknow . My family at this time came again with moral support and Nirmal said that whatever happens happens for the best . I needed a kick in my behind to take the final leap so the principal’s outburst was a blessing in disguise .
So one day in October 1966 I went to Lucknow and asked the passport officer what really the problem was with my application. I thought every Indian citizen had a right to travel and besides there were no criminal ground on the basis of which they could deny me a passport so what was the matter?
He was a nice and polite chap and told me that my case had been sent to Delhi to decide because it was complicated and beyond his discretion. The reason was Vietnam . The Indian Government did not encourage anyone to go to Vietnam at that time due to their disagreement with the Americans on the war there .
So I took the name and address of the person to see in Delhi and boarded a train the same night to see if I could personally explain my case to the officials in Delhi. This was my first solo trip to Delhi where I did not know a soul . I just had a name and the address in the Ministry of External Affairs.
When I arrived at the Ministry of External Affairs in Delhi and demanded to see a certain official who was the big boss there, I was told that an appointment was necessary before an audience could be granted .This I could not accept having traveled over 900 kilometers to Delhi to see this gentleman . So I insisted that the clerk call the boss and at least let him know that I came all the way from Sri Ram Pur to see him for a very important reason. To the surprise of the clerk the big boss asked me to come up immediately to his 14th floor office .
When I was shown into his office, I was truly impressed.The office was huge with plush carpet and very comfortable with air conditioner humming in the background. He must have been a very high official indeed to merit such office in the capital.
I was nervous but he smiled and asked me to sit down while he attended to more business at hand . He received streams of visitors some of them foreign and some local and he often talked on phones .There was a red one which I suspect linked him to higher offices. I read Time Life magazines while he appeared to be so busy .
Finally after what seemed like a long time he came over and asked me what brought me to his office so I told him the whole story and asked if he would look into my case. He listened to me very attentively and asked his secretary to bring him my file. This was done by a nervous secretary who brought in a dusty file that he surreptitiously tried to clean but was noticed.
He asked why the file had been collecting dust for six months and not brought to his attention to which the poor chap could give no answer .At any rate he read my files and asked why I was going to Vietnam of all places and what in the world was IVS so I told him. He was not convinced.
He then asked how much I was going to be paid as a volunteer agronomist to which I replied that it was only 80 dollars a month .I was going more for the experience than money but he kept shaking his head and asked why I was going to risk my life going to Vietnam and that too for only 80 dollars a month. At that point I became quite nervous because I knew that my chance of ever getting a passport depended upon with this powerful man so I had to convince him of my motive.
So I said something to this effect :” Sir , if the Japanese, Americans, Canadians and many other young people from so many countries could go to Vietnam for only 80 dollars a month then why couldn’t an Indian ? I also could go there and work. Those people risked their lives but so could I . Besides I really did not believe that anything bad would happen to me in Vietnam .”
This must have hit a patriotic chord in him somehow and he smiled.He explained that it was against the government policy to even seem to support the war in Vietnam and discouraged Indians to go there but he will try and see what he can do for me as my motive seems to be noble.
He then tried to dial long distance to Lucknow to talk to the passport officer but the lines were busy. He spent some time dialing various numbers and finally said to me that I should return home . He will do what he can to help me . This was all the assurance I needed from this kind and mild mannered gentleman and happily I returned to Sri Ram Pur .
The passport came within a week. I remember that day well because my childhood friend Nantu showed up unexpectedly. I had not seen him in years so I was very happy and went with him and spent the whole day catching up on what he did since we last saw each other. He told me that he had run away from home when he was 16 and enlisted in the army falsifying his age. Now he was a captain in the signal corps and enjoying his privileges as an officer . He showed great delight that I was going to Vietnam. He looked so handsome and smart . I was truly happy for him .It was great shock for me when I learned later that he had taken his life and I to this date do not know why. He seemed so happy.
The whole of 1966 passed away . I had gotten my passport but the fight for a visa just got started . At that time I did not know but would later meet the people in Saigon who worked tirelessly to persuade the Vietnamese government to wire me a visa . Many months passed while I fretted and became more and more listless because this period of waiting was indeed very agonizing not to mention those people who checked everyday if my visapassport had come . Now they said visapassport as one word and still did not know what it meant or which came first.
But the visa finally came and the plane ticket so there was no more hurdle and I was free to proceed at last. It was great a struggle but I had won so nothing else mattered now.
During this time Nirmal became my staunch supporter and proud brother. He knew how hard I had tried and rejoiced that finally I got what I wanted. He said not to worry because he will look after mom as was his duty so I should now proceed with my life . He also convinced mom that I was taking a new direction in my life so the best she could do was to wish me luck.
Ramesh at that time was studying in Jabalpur and often came to Sri Ram Pur. He was very surprised to know that I was going to Vietnam but showed up with a car to drive me and some well wishers to the airport in Sri Ram Pur in June 1967 .This was my first plane ride but the long journey in life had already begun .It was just the first step and what a momentous step it was.
I was only 22 and on my way to a foreign land . I had struggled hard and spent many bitter months but finally it was over and I was going to fly to Kolkata from where a big Pan Am jet would take me to Saigon.
Nirmal at this time wanted to get married so the family began to look for a suitable girl extensively. In fact the search began a long time ago when dad was alive but for one reason or other the prospective candidates were all rejected. I do not know what they were looking for in a girl to be suitable because in general the Bengali girls are not bad looking and most are college educated .
Sometimes it was the nose that was not right or the height or the girl was too dark skinned. Now the Indians in general are dark skinned but come the marriage time everyone looks for a very fair skinned woman. They are hard to find. Once I was asked to see a girl whom my mother was considering for Nirmal. In arranged marriage which the Bengali tradition dictates ,the girl is carefully scrutinized and long bargaining on expenses etc. start if the girl is suitable . But first the girl has to be interviewed so we trooped one day to her house. I found the girl charming and quite educated and gave a very positive impression .
But sadly she turned out to be an inch taller than Nirmal which to me was not a problem but I was not the groom. Nirmal absolutely refused to consider her. The parents of the poor girl even came to the house with a measuring tape to check if Nirmal was indeed short by an inch and went away dismayed so a new search started immediately.
Then just before I was about to leave Sri Ram Pur for Vietnam, another photo was shown to me . It was a very plain looking girl to be sure but I refused to be a part of the interview process because I had burned my fingers once. Besides who was I to decide ? It was Nirmal’s choice and only his but I had certain misgivings yet I kept my own counsel. I had met the father of this girl earlier or rather he was once looking at me but never spoke. I disliked the way he looked at me and thought that the fellow looked mean so what kind of daughter such a man would raise ?
I do have a canny sixth sense in knowing a person just by looking the first time. This sense has served me many times in life dealing with people. Either I have good vibes about a person or I don’t . I usually stay away from people I do not like and I certainly did not like this old man but then I was about to leave so it really was none of my business whom Nirmal decided to marry .I did not say anything to anyone and prepared to leave. Nirmal would get married to this woman in two months time. Her name was Sabita.
On June 1 of 1967 I flew off to Kolkata in a wretched propeller driven plane that kept dropping like stone in air pockets making my journey very painful. My first plane ride was also the most awful because I threw up . A Peace Corps volunteer sitting next to me was very helpful in getting me off the plane because I was so weak from retching.
Mom and Annapurna had arrived by train the next day. Now the final preparation for my departure from Kolkata began in earnest. The whole clan was excited because I was the first one to go abroad so they chattered endlessly. My uncle borrowed a jeep to bring me to the airport and on the morning of June 4 we all proceeded to the airport.
The driver missed the airport in all the excitement and it was only after some time this fact emerged so the jeep turned around to find the proper airport . Annapurna did not go because she had diarrhea but mom and others went to see me off. At the airport it was quite a scene . They were not about to let me leave without a bit of fanfare .Mom and aunts kept on shedding tears so the immigration officer asked where I was going. I answered quickly Bangkok because Saigon would have elicited a long harangue which I wanted to avoid.
He said things like Bangkok is a good place. He knows someone there who says so etc. etc. but ma knew better and kept quiet. Finally the pretty American stewardess could wait no longer and said that the flight must leave and I was holding it up so I boarded the bus .
This time the big jet did not roll or drop like a stone and climbed fast over the clouds .Only there was the slight hum of the air conditioner and I felt some pressure on the ear as the plane climbed. Below nothing could be seen but I was thinking of the folks on the ground and the life I left behind perhaps forever for a foreign country I knew nothing about .
It was an achievement worth writing about . I managed to fight for my rights, got my passport and the visa and was on my way thanks to some help from that kind gentleman in Delhi and the people in Saigon whom I would soon meet. Mostly I struggled alone . But my mind was also occupied with a lot of other things. I never knew foreigners and did not know how to deal with them, talk to them or work with them. In India we did not mix with them and always looked at them from a distance only .Friendship with them was out of the question . But Jane was nice and she smiled a lot and Lawrence was not bad either so I thought that it will be alright if others were like them. I felt a bit lonely for the first time in many years although there was no one to notice it.
Very soon we were over the city of Rangoon in Burma and saw the golden dome of the Swedagon Pagoda that glittered in the sun . It is a landmark and can be seen even from that altitude. Soon it was time to land in Bangkok where I would have to take a connecting flight to Saigon but a Thai girl approached me in Bangkok and said that my flight to Saigon was cancelled so I had to stay in Bangkok overnight.
The airline will pay for my expenses and will send me to a nice hotel in their limousine and also bring me back to the airport the next day to catch the flight to Saigon. So I went downtown and stayed at the Rama hotel which was a five star hotel of luxury.
Now I was a small town boy and had never been inside of a hotel five star or not so the splendor and décor of a five star hotel like Rama really impressed me. It was truly beyond anything I had ever known or seen but what worried me most was the fact that I had only five miserable dollars in my pocket that the Indian government had allowed me to change against Rupees.
In a place like Rama probably a cup of tea cost as much but I kept to myself and went to my room to sleep for a while. In the evening I went to an enormous dining hall or restaurant where there were very few people and a lot of waiters. One of them soon brought me a thick menu but I was not familiar with the foods that was mentioned although he said that I could order anything I wished .The airline will foot the bill.
So after a lot of thinking I ordered a bowl of soup because I noticed that some people around me were having soup so I figured that was the proper thing to do although at home we never had soup or wanted one.
I do not remember the rest of the menu or the evening except that the Thai waiter came back and asked if I wanted to see the night life or Thai boxing to which I quickly replied in the negative before the thing got out of hand because the waiter did not know about my only five dollars .
Indians in those days were such a miserable lot who traveled with only five dollars on them but later I would learn that many other countries had similar restrictions and their governments controlled very tightly the currencies.
I asked the desk to wake me up at 4 am to be ready for the airport but the sleep did not come easily and I was up long before the wake up buzzer sounded and went for a walk in the empty streets of Bangkok . The manager was anxiously waiting for me because the airport limo was there to pick me up. This time the flight was not cancelled so I took off for Saigon with a stop over in Phnom Penh in Cambodia.
The Pan Am jet touched down at the Tan Son Nhut airport of Saigon on time but I noticed hundreds of very round holes on the ground filled with water that did not quite look like fish ponds to me. I made a mental note to ask about them later .
It is never easy to recall in detail the events that happened so long ago but I have tried to be faithful in telling my story so far. Later it would get more and more complicated . I had a normal childhood and a normal adolescent period in my life but from now on nothing would be strictly normal .Many unusual things were to happen but I had no idea yet what was coming.From now on I would face many difficult situations and learn to cope with them in time but now was the time to rejoice because I had arrived.
I would like to end this chapter here because I literally began a new life the moment I touched down in Saigon. That is where everything began so the earlier part was just the preliminary.
Note : My blogs are also available in French, Spanish, German and Japanese languages at the following links as well as my biography:
My blogs are also available in French, Spanish, German and Japanese languages at the following links as well as my biography: