I was vulnerable. Arrived fresh to a country where I knew nobody. Every face, every little detail of the surrounding was entirely unknown. I had a hidden pride in me before arriving America, that my knowledge about this country is pretty solid. I know the geography, I could tell the difference between Washington, DC and Washington State, which is unknown to many Americans. I thought my knowledge about America based on Hollywood films and Sydney Sheldon, which I used to read while traveling in Indian trains, is sufficient to understand this new world. But when I arrived first, none of this knowledge seemed to make any sense to me. My pride fell apart by the overwhelming grandeur of this place. The only thing that amused me on the first day was the name of a store, “Wawa”. Later I learned that even people coming from western part of America, where no Wawa store exists, think that the name is funny. Other than Wawa, nothing made my first day amusing.
I thought I could handle a little American accent. But I overestimated my ability. My knowledge about American accent from Tom Sawyer seemed insignificant while asking for a meal in a nearby fast food restaurant. I stood in a queue (I knew it as queue not as line at that time) with a heartbeat exponentially rising each time I made a step forward. I finally reached the counter, which seemed ages. Before I could speak even a syllable the lady in the other side asked me something I was certain at that time, was not English. She uttered “foheaottogo”. This is probably the simplest way I can write that word which came out of her mouth, which I later knew means “for here or to go”. At that time, knowing nothing what was she talking about and feeling embarrassed in a place filled with unfamiliar faces, I stood still. My behavior freaked her out for obvious reasons unknown to me at that time. Fortunately some good Samaritans helped me acquire my food, the food I did not desire to eat but my stomach had a different idea, so I ate. Since that day I kept myself away from any fast food store for a long time.
Being totally blown out by the incident, I started feeling lonely and hungry. Loneliness does not generally bother me much, but hunger does. To overcome my woes about hunger I intentionally started to encourage being distressed by loneliness and started to crave for a person with who I can talk about familiar things, such as the ongoing world cup football (I did not know that in America football means different and what I called football is actually soccer in America). Talks at work about the prospective pitcher in Philly’s next playoff game, the signs on the buses saying “Go Sixers” etc., made no sense to me. In fact once I thought the bus number is Sixer or something like that and the word ‘go’ simply means the forward movement of the bus, although I realized that they stop more often than they move in the city.
The biggest mystery of all were the non-existence of a conductor in those air-conditioned buses, which kept me from riding a bus till I solved the mystery by my own Sherlock Holmes work. Once I would finish being astound or amused by the ongoing activities around me, I would feel hungry and turn to my awkward intentionally generated sorrow of loneliness. This act of mine finally paid off and I found a German girl, named Ruth, with whom I talked about football, the world cup and a little politics.
The only German political connection I knew at that time was the controversial link between India’s hero Subhas Chandra Bose and Nazi dictator Hitler, which of course was not a good sell with Ruth. Other than that my knowledge about Germany was restricted to World War II (from Hollywood films), tearing down of Berlin wall (did not have a clear idea why), Mercedes Benz and Beckenbauer. Ruth’s knowledge about India was also not impressive, I must say. She thought India means a cultural catastrophe and a kind of mysticism, which is hard to understand.
About Calcutta she had dreadful ideas, she thought leprosy and Calcutta are probably synonymous. I can’t blame her for such erroneous knowledge. I felt it is worthless to discuss about how beautiful the Himalaya is or how the wisdom of Vivekananda, Gandhi and Tagore influence the lives of Indian people; since none of these really matters at the context of the overwhelming madness happening around India. So I restricted my conversation within the realm of world cup football. Both were interested in the topic and both could discuss about the ongoing frenzy happening halfway across the world. The most important of all was that we were not from rival countries competing each other for the same honor and India has no significant historical place in the football world.
The only reason I was interested because of the fact that I was raised in a city called Calcutta, where football is the life blood, as intelligently stated in the last film by our legendary film maker Satyajit Ray. So the conversation with Ruth about football was very energetic and informative. A group of football-lovers, mostly Europeans, gathered and we had long discussion about the game we just finished watching. After which everybody would go back to their respective rooms and I would go back to my little room in a dormitory and sink into hunger and intentional loneliness. My roommate was a student from Indian origin. He would bring some Indian food from home after his weekend visit to his parents who lived nearby. So those days would be special for me, I can eat his food and not go out to venture into another restaurant. Other days I would call my wife, my mother and my sister in India to get some break.
This endeavor of mine did not only helped me break my chaotic life but also made me a complete broke. I started spending an awful lot of money on phone bills. In appreciation to my continuous support to AT&T and Verizon (my telephone carriers); Sprint, another telephone company at that time who was not my telephone carrier, came out with a novel idea of rewarding me. They sent me a brand new video tape of one of the most popular and awful (according to my opinion, which really does not matter) movies of that year, Titanic. Being overwhelmed again by the generosity, I switched to Sprint. This move not only made my telephone bill go skyrocketing, but also made me buy a VCR to watch Titanic, the only video I owned then. I did not regret my move, because I thought I did a great service to the economy of the country, which has given me an opportunity of lifetime.
The world cup ended, most of the European left and I moved to an apartment from the dormitory in preparation of my wife’s arrival in the US. Now a new anxiety gripped me, how am I going to live this new life in this unfamiliar place? I thought I need some company of people with similar background. The familiar word of my countrymen “searching for the root”, is exactly what I started out to find. My life long devotion towards Tagore’s philosophy about reaching out for the world seemed unnecessary and deviated me for the first time from my path. Before I could recover and came back to my path laid by my childhood heroes like Tagore and Vivekananda, I deviated a little due to the selection pressure.
During this time of my life, when I was struggling to get hold of my true identity, a group of people approached me with excessive politeness and camaraderie. They approached me with a promise, which I thought might make a big difference in my life. I finally started to think that the famous notion about Indian hospitality is not after all mere words, but indeed a matter of truth. They did not care that I have no car, they did not care that I live in a 300 sq feet studio apartment in the threshold of a gay neighborhood, nor did they care that I don’t have a green card yet. The only request from them, was to go to one of their business meetings. They had another request. They asked me to wear a formal outfit with a tie and a jacket, which I thought was a reasonable request for an Indian-American driving a big car (did not know at that time the make of those cars) and conversing with an unfamiliar English accent distinct from average Americans and even Indians. One of them came to pick me up from my work one day. I was wearing a tie but not a jacket, since I did not have one. I was feeling little embarrassed, but did not know whether because of wearing a tie or of not wearing a suite like the man who came to pick me up.
I guess it is the suite that I was not wearing made me feel awkward. If not, then why did I insist my wife to bring my father’s suite from India while coming to the US! I am certain now that it was the suite, not the tie. Anyway, he came out of his van and waved at me, came closer and shook my hand with a little excessive and unnecessary firmness and introduced himself as Deven Krishnamurthy. I felt a bit of pain in my palm, but said nothing. He offered me to go first and get into the car. With some enthusiasm I went to ride the car from the wrong side due to my natural tendency of sitting at the left side of the driver’s seat. This silly act of mine made him laugh a little. But he recovered quickly. He opened the right side door and helped me sit and strap my seat belt. I was feeling embarrassed and exciting at the same time.
With a professional simplicity and etiquette he came and sat at the driver’s seat. He then backed up the car a little and floated out of the parking spot with an ease I only watched in movies. He then broke out into conversations like how bad the traffic is, how difficult it is to find a parking spot in the city, how humid the weather is and even about the recent Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky story. Most of these conversations were completely irrelevant to me until he started asking about the One-day cricket in India. I found something to talk about. But before I could even give him my opinion about Sachin Tendulkar’s extraordinary pull shot or Saurav Ganguli’s arrogance and determination to transform the mentality of average Indian cricketer; he pressed a button on his car’s front panel.
I realized its music time now. So I started to think names of some American musicians that I knew. None other than Micleal Jackson’s name came up in my mind. I was trying hard to remember names like Beatles, Eagles, Abba or Bruce Springsteen, all of whom I listened before. But my memory betrayed me, as it did many times in the past. Fortunately when the cassette finished rewinding and I heard a man’s voice very similar to the man driving me to an unknown destination, I felt a bit relieved. The man’s voice in the cassette sounded very similar to Deven’s voice. I was wondering if it was him. But also wondered why would someone listen to his own voice while driving a car? That did not make any sense. As if Deven heard my inner voice like a mind reader. He said that the person talking in the tape is Santanu Basu who is one among the few people who achieved platinum tier. I had no ides what that meant, the only thing that I knew was, what tier means. I knew that depending on one’s travel frequency in a particular airline he/she can become eligible for a certain privileges or earn tier points to get benefits in his/her future travels.
One can become a blue member or a silver or gold or platinum member. I was wondering whether I would be introduced to such an elite society who will make me travel around the world and make me earn my tier points. This is exiting, I thought. So I started listening to the tape carefully. He was talking about a vacation he took recently to Miami. Then he talked about how he enjoyed the luxury of staying in a resort, which I could only dream. Sometimes he was cracking jokes and I could hear people laughing and applauding in the background. Some of those jokes appeared so stupid that I started reconsidering my decision about going where I was going. One of which I still remember. He said in his childhood he wondered what happened to Jack after he broke his crown. The relevance of the joke slips my mind at present, but I remembered that this caused a huge laughter to the audience.
The first thought that came in my mind was whether I was going to be dragged into a drug ring or something? Unless being drugged, I thought, it was impossible to make people laugh on a joke like that one. Some jokes were smart too, which I later found out are picked from shows like Jerry Seinfeld or the Simpsons, or may even be from shows like Jay Leno. He never mentioned their sources. As anyone can expect that my ignorance about the current trend of American comedy at that time made me smile for a few of those copied jokes. Once the car left the city limit, it started to travel deep into the suburbs. The green meadows, the blue sky, and the quite landscape were indeed a treat to my eyes and helped me shut my ears. I wanted to open the windows and smell the world outside, but my technical incompetence and shyness restricted me from asking Deven my desire. I turned towards him hoping for a miracle that he might be able to read my mind one more time. But this time he was only nodding his head with a clear affirmation to Santanu’s speech in the tape.
Although I was incapable of grasping the terms like Diamond direct, Emerald legs, Upline, downline or vertical pyramids (is there any horizontal pyramid!) etc., I clearly understood that it is the voice of a preacher, preaching about one of the simplest ways to make some extra money to acquire desirable comfort in life. Most importantly the money earned by such method, which had a name I forget now, flows forever. Santanu was one among a few lucky ones who, it seemed, tasted it. At first it seemed like the “water of India” vessel of the famous magician P.C. Sarkar. I remembered going to many of his shows and being surprised by the vessel’s magical power to generate water no matter how many times the magician emptied it. I thought these people may have unlocked the mystery of P.C. Sarkar’s “water of India” and transformed it into a money flowing machine. In this system, Santanu assured, one need not have to worry about loosing jobs; because once someone achieves the highest tier of the pyramid (which, I understood, is rarely achieved), one does not have to work at all. This method, according to the people in the system, is the ultimate way to achieve financial freedom in life without being attached to a string named “jobs”.
In an uncertain job market, which was later proved detrimental to many, such promise certainly attracted a lot of folks. Most probably, the real story of one the top tiers caused the audience go crazy about the prospect of such a system. Santanu said that one of the highest achievers celebrated the very day he received a sudden notice from his employer saying “you are no more needed”. This, according to Santanu and many like him, was the meaning of freedom. Even at that time of my life, when I was naïve and uncertain, the philosophy seemed odd. I toiled half of my life to become a scientist, my passion for science and technology does not only help me earn my living but also enrich my professional hunger.
How can an engineer or a scientist or a doctor or a lawyer or an entrepreneur, feel happy or celebrate something which promises to evaporate their life’s foundation, was inapprehensible to my mind. This did not make any sense to me. The preacher in the tape said he met his darling wife through the business who, his father thought, may have been picked up from the catalogue, which the preacher and the audience thought far fetched. But after my return from that night’s meeting I thought, how much ever funny it might sound like, he certainly did pick up his life partner from the catalogue. The entire society of this business is a catalogue where you don’t sell product but you sell people. I’ll explain that in a moment. In the car, the tape finally ended and a voice with flawless American English was heard. It said “The tape has been used independently by Freeway Corporation and has not been reviewed by Freeway. While the techniques and approaches suggested in the tape may have worked for others, no one can guarantee in that they might work for you…”. Deven tried to turn the tape off before this statutory announcement, but since he was taking a sharp right turn in a narrow suburban street, he failed to do so. Finally he did succeed in turning the tape off, but by that time I sensed what the kind of destination I am headed to. The only assurance was that it was not a drug dealer’s gang.
Finally we arrived at Deven’s house. It’s exactly the kind of house I saw in foreign movies or foreign magazines. Beautiful little cottage style house with a front porch and a huge backyard. The garage door opened automatically by an invisible magic wand. I stepped into a lush green neatly mowed lawn. The fragrance of the freshly cut grass was still in the air. A chiming bell was making lazy music by the flowing wind. The atmosphere was very attractive and intoxicating to me. I saw a bunch of Indians with sophisticated western attire, including one wearing a bow tie. Most of these stylish men were entering with their wives at their sides. Some of them had small children in baskets, which I later knew were car seats. These child-carrying families also had at least one more guest with them. Most of these guests were elderly women. I learned from the floating conversations that they are either the grand-moms or nannies of those children. At first I did not understand the purpose of bringing them here in a meeting they term “business meeting”. Latter I found out that, although the children are not good for this business and therefore are expected to stay home with their respective nannies, newborn babies and little children are allowed since they need their mothers for food. And the reason to carry nannies or grandmas along is to keep the crying babies away from the meeting area. That I thought was a clever idea.
The only home-based entrepreneurship that I was aware of at that time, where presence of children are bad for business, was nothing other than prostitution. But this meeting, I thought, was for different purpose. The people were talking about family values, the role of religion in a family etc. Some were boasting about how proud they are to have found their perfect life partners, just like the preacher in the tape. The women looked happy and boastful. Some were dressed up in traditional Indian costumes and others were wearing both formal and casual western outfits. The only matter that did not go unnoticed was their quick disappearance into some unknown part of the house, probably forbidden for men. Not everyone disappeared, a few overly dressed ladies stayed in the living room and were giving charming smiles to every one they met. There were a few confused single men (I did not see any single woman) haphazardly walking across the room and outside the porch with no clear reason to do so. Most of them were wearing only a tie. I remembered seeing one with no-tie too. These people, including me, looked very reluctant to do anything. After a while, when everybody arrived, somebody came up and told that “the meeting” would start soon.
Everyone gathered immediately in the living room. The disappeared wives became visible one more time sitting next to their respective husbands. The single men gathered at one corner of the room. The room looked big when I first arrived, but now the room looked over crowded. The host, my “sponsor” Deven addressed first and directed everybody’s attention towards the new faces and asked them to introduce themselves with their names and their sponsor’s name. If there is any chronic illness that I suffer from, then it would be nervousness-related-short-term-memory-loss. I suffered an attack of exactly that at the time when I was called upon to introduce myself, I forgot my sponsor’s name. Hastily I completed telling my name, which I remembered, and outstretched my hand toward Deven as to indicate who my sponsor was. Everyone clapped as usual. After this initial drama was over, the stage was given to Deven to say something about the purpose of that meeting. What he said is more or less the same that I heard in that tape, except the fact he avoided saying to many jokes unlike the preacher in the tape. Then came another character, named Raghu Venkateswaran. He was the one with the bow tie. He started his speech with an extravagant appreciation about his wife’s devotion towards his life’s choice. I felt funny, because this is exactly how the tape in the car began. The only difference between the two speeches were their English accent. While Santanu had a fluid and natural accent, Raghu had a heavy and artificial accent sounded more like a characteristic southern Indian accent mixed up with American rap music. It was fun for me to see Raghu struggle with the word ‘love’, which he pronounced as ‘lou’. In short Raghu’s speech was more entertaining than informative.
He was giving all kinds of advices, such as the strength of unity and the strength of family values etc, which were obviously educative to a lot of people who like to follow orthodox conservative path of life. Being a completely liberal minded, I found the speech funny and entertaining at the same time. The only place where he sounded contradictory was when he said about how one of the top tiers spent his son’s birthdays in cars on their way to similar meetings. Surprisingly he admired such devotion to this wacky business in expense of one’s sons’ birthdays, which that person had been doing for last five years. This sounded odd to me. If you want to believe in family values wouldn’t you want to spend your son’s birthdays with them in a proper way, rather than doing it on the way to a party like this one, where the motto is to leave the children behind.
This did not make any sense to me, although to my surprise it made a lot of sense to others who supported his ideology with loud claps, just like in that tape. More surprises were awaiting. Raghu talked about moral values and its spiritual significance. Most ordinary people believe that there is a spiritual touch in morality. Although I do not believe that there is anything spiritual about morality based on my knowledge about freethinkers of our society, I still respect people’s inclination towards this belief. So I listened to what Raghu had to add to this notion. He not only failed to add anything new, he spoiled the entire flavor of this concept by telling that how good he felt while walking along the streets of India during his last visit with a bag full of cash earned from this business. I did not find anything moral about his feeling. Raghu, then, started giving valuable advice on how to build up this business. According to him and his mentors, the foremost skill to become successful in this business is to learn how to be as elusive as possible about the business’s intention while approaching a prospective recruit.
This was exactly how Deven approached me at the beginning, keeping me in a complete darkness about his intentions. A few other tips included keeping a mouth freshener and using it before catching a prey and wearing attractive costumes and applying intoxicating fragrance while in a hunt. Do these not sound like pre-requisite for one of the oldest professions of mankind? To me it did. The reason I incline to compared this business with prostitution is that the entire exercise of such meeting is to build a person who can stand in a mall or a public place, in contrast to ill lit streets of flesh traders, and allure customers who can come and spend a few amount of money and valuable time to get a cheap pleasure of artificial camaraderie (money, of course, is hard to get). If this is not a sophisticated way to educate “how to become a pimp or a prostitute” I think I am ignorant.
That night lying in my bed in that little apartment of mine, I plunged into deep thoughts. I realized that the promised companionship of those overly dressed and excessively polite group of people were extremely artificial and driven by hidden motives. I was not ready to accept such opportunistic business theology. I would not have felt dejected had Deven told me his true intention at the beginning. The deceptive approach of a person I trusted, caused me reject the entire society of such masked men and women. Not that this institution has no other activity other than pulling people in a delusion of financial freedom, they also sponsor some research labs in the country. Never the less, the system was certainly not for me. As I expected, my denial to join that group caused a sudden and abrupt evaporation of those self-proclaimed comrades. The only regret I had was the loss of some cash, which I paid as an entry fee to attend one of their big conferences, with no option for any food. The amount, how small it may look today, was a lot at that time, which I could have spent wisely in a familiar restaurant to have many decent meals. Nevertheless, I felt lucky that my utter stupidity did not drag me into a filthy tunnel of people with horrific intentions. My wife had a strong role to play in this decision too. I feel pity to those who were dragged into such pits with no escape route. Most people feel comfortable being surrounded by friends with charming smiles and excessively firm hands around their necks. I am not among those, although I do respect true friendship, which I must say is rarely achieved.
This may be the first encounter with opportunist friends, but was certainly not the last one. Opportunists in disguise of friends slowly turned me into a man despising friendship. Fortunately none of these affected my childhood resolve of trusting fellow human being. I have seen innumerable false friendships, some obvious and some deceiving, but I have seen a large number of human beings with unbelievable touch of life too. These are the people who never failed to stand up for me and probably for anybody whenever there was injustice. These are the people, no matter how small their numbers may be, will stay in my mind forever. These people never admired me or my way of life, they either approved or disapproved my various ideology. In contrast, the friends in disguise never missed an opportunity to admire me until they found a chance to do the opposite. Famous line from Tagore explains this with artistic fluidity. He says:
“Dhonitiray Pratidhayni shoda bengo korey
Dhoni kachey rini shey jey pache dhora porey”
( A loose translation: It is the echo that mocks the sound all the time, just to avoid being caught that it is indebted to the sound forever).
I witnessed the truth of the quote everywhere around me. It comforts me knowing that it is not so bad after all, being mistreated by deceiving companions.
Twice in my professional life I was wrongly accused by people I thought closer to my roots. Both of these would have been detrimental to my professional integrity. In both occasions I found fellow colleagues with unbelievable strength to come forward and give unconditional support to the truth, which saved me and my integrity. I may not be that lucky every time in my life, but I understood the meaning of companionship. I realized that it is not only about following the path of truth but also to support it unconditionally is what is humanity’s greatest resolve. This reminded me of another small line from a Bengali adage, I learnt long ago. A loose translation of which would be : “Those who commit wrong and those who tolerate the same must be despised with the same vigor”. It was the commitment to support the truth by few of those colleagues of mine, made me return to my original path laid by my childhood heroes. I again started to reach out for the world to find my root, which I call humanity. My advancing desire to discover my root in a country, not new to me anymore, helped me understand once again that it is nothing other than the strength to stand up for the truth and the truth only is what will probably bring us a perfect world. No matter how many times the lies of the political leaderships cause worry to this country, a nation founded on uncompromised support to the truth still has a lot to offer to a man arriving from a distant land in search of his true root, the humanity.