1970s America: An Indian Student's Journey - 2

Continued from Previous Page

Campus Life

I easily and quickly settled into the campus life. Coming from India, everything in US appeared to be so easy and good and quality of life so superior that surprisingly enough I did not feel homesick at all. In fact the situation at campus helped me feel very much at home! 1974-75 were worst times in UF history with massive power cuts during weekends, low thermostat settings in winter and great deficit in the general budget. Thus during weekends there used to be no power in the department and as the Gainesville temperature started going up all the windows of offices were opened and we had to use a hand fan to keep cool. It was just like India! Fortunately the situation improved in the spring quarter of 1975.

As I settled into my course work a great desire arose to learn as much as possible in all fields. It could be because of good teachers, excellent library facilities or a general ambience of scholarship. This was further helped by the fact that UF being a major university had almost all departments on the same campus. This was very conducive to study multi-disciplinary areas.

Thus I started attending seminars in different departments. In those times there was no internet or fax so I had to go to different departments and get my name registered to receive seminar notices or fliers. On receiving them I would go and attend the seminars. Not only was I interested in solar energy or mechanical engineering but also took courses in materials science, chemical engineering, electrical engineering, and even in humanities subjects like movie appreciation, sleep and dreams etc.

I also did very well in my courses and mostly scored A's or B+'s. I remember in one course the professor gave me 150 out of 100 since I solved the extra problem which nobody could solve. I was not a genius or brilliant but just a hard worker. So when the problem was given, I went to the library, did good research and found the solution in one of the papers in a Journal which I then applied judiciously. My solution was displayed on the notice board for others to see. Such instances happened a couple of times in other courses also.

This was also the time when electronic revolution was just being ushered in university campuses. One of my officemates bought a Hewlett Packard scientific calculator for $850/- ! He used to guard it with his life because it was one of the first such calculators in campus besides being very costly. Hence he used to carry it all the time attached to his belt. With great difficulty he would allow me to use it for short periods of time. I was used to slide rule but found the calculator very handy and useful. In a matter of a year the prices of these calculators had come down to about $70-80. Today the same calculators will not cost more than $5!

There used to be a great debate in our department regarding the merits of calculators vs. slide rules. All the old professors felt that the engineers would loose their feeling for design and numbers by the use of these calculators. Within few months these same professors had started using them since they were very useful. I witnessed a similar debate in early 1980s when the personal computers started appearing on the campus. The old professors complained that besides research now they would have to become secretaries also! Nevertheless in a short time they all had learned typing and found these machines very useful and handy.

UF being one of the good universities of US had a large number of famous people coming to give lectures, seminars and talks and I enjoyed attending them as often as possible. I have always found out that a student has to extract as much knowledge as possible from the university education and that the university does not give it to him or her on a platter. Thus if I had a query I would go and meet the professors and discuss with him or her the issues. These meetings proved to be very useful later on when I set up the University wide multidisciplinary seminars on energy.

This thirst for knowledge made my graduate studies very enjoyable and I used to spend long hours till late at night either in my office or in the library. I remember that even during week- ends I would go after dinner to my office and work till it was quite late.

A black cleaning woman who used to clean our office had been observing my behavior. So one day she came to my office and said in her black English 'Are you having fuuun'! I said 'Yes, I enjoy my studies and hence I come to the office every night'. She said, 'Do you need any heelllp'! I immediately understood her drift and so started going to the library at night instead of staying in the office! In those days lots of Indian students were considered as soul brothers by the blacks and so the cleaning woman felt a certain empathy for me.

Quite a number of Indian students during weekends used to frequent bars and other night spots for female companionship, but I somehow found them quite distasteful. It was a combination of my snooty outlook where I always thought that people who frequent bars were lower forms of life or it could also be because of my shyness and lack of knowledge of dancing. I did go a few times to the local bars with my Indian friends but found the music too loud and environment too suffocating.

After the first quarter I moved into one of the cheapest dorms on the campus called Reid Coop. I shared a room with another Indian graduate student. The living was very sparse with the room containing a bed with mattress, one table and a chair. There was no air conditioning and all the residents of one floor shared a common bathroom, kitchen and dinning room. The best part was the rent which was only $ 25/month or less than half that of Beaty Towers. Majority of the students who stayed in Reid Coop were foreign graduate students from India, China, Pakistan etc. There were also a good number of American students both graduate and undergraduate. Besides each one had to take turns in cleaning the kitchen, bathrooms and hallway. This is how the low dorm fees resulted.

I used to share the groceries with my roommate and another Indian graduate student who also lived on the same floor. The third student had the car and so once a week we all used to go for grocery shopping. Both my grocery mates drank a lot of beer which I did not but since the grocery bill was equally divided, I paid for the beer also. This went on for about 1-2 months and I thought that they would be sensitive enough not to ask me to pay for their beer. Finally when I protested, they said that it was also my beer and I was most welcome to drink as much as I want. I told them that I have no desire of drinking it, so they made a plan of making me aware of the good qualities of beer.

That weekend three of us went to a local beer bar and I drank about 2 liters of beer in one sitting. After the dinner and beer drinking, I could neither stand up nor talk coherently. So my roommates brought me back to my room and I slept in the drunken state. In the morning I woke up with a slight hangover and my roommate remarked that beer must have helped me sleep well. Since I had no problem sleeping, that was the last time I drank beer. I could never develop a taste for beer or any other hard drink though I tried all of them and so I became a teetotaler by choice. In fact it used to be quite hilarious later on when I and my wife were invited to lots of parties and we were one of the few couples who remained sober after a couple of hours ! I did however develop a taste for wine but with time that also vanished.

Gainesville in those times had a very few good eating places. Thus for good Chinese food we would drive to Jacksonville a good 100 miles to eat dinner! When I wrote about it to my parents they thought I and my friends were crazy to drive 100 miles just to eat Chinese food. But that was America where one did not bat an eyelid to drive 50-100 miles either to see a movie in an open air theater or eat dinner. In fact I once drove 400 miles from Gainesville to New Orleans just to see the exhibition about the famous Egyptian Prince Tutankhamen which was touring US in 1977.

Fairly soon I got quite a liking for the American food (one is not sure what exactly it is) and hence did not miss very much the Indian food till one day (3-4 months after my arrival in US) I dreamt of parathas! I woke up and felt really ashamed to dream of such a mundane thing as parathas. But then realized that the unconscious is telling me something. So I requested one of my married Indian friends to feed me a paratha meal. I think that quenched the desire!

When I came to US I did not know any cooking. So cooking simple things like scrambled eggs or omelet became quite an exercise. However I applied my mind and learned to cook them quite well later on. Cooking a typical Indian meal was something else. In my first month of stay in Beaty Towers my Romanian roommate insisted that I should cook an Indian meal for him. After a great difficulty I cooked some pulao. Somehow red chilies were put in little more abundance with the result the poor roommate had a tissue paper in one hand and a fork in other hand! After that fiasco I did not cook very much in my Beaty Towers apartment and so learned most of my Indian cooking from my Reid Coop roommates.

A similar fiasco took place in the laundry in Beaty Towers. I washed my woolen sweater that my mother had lovingly knitted in the washing machine and then put it in the dryer. The sweater shrank to one fourth its original size! I never had the heart to tell my mother what happened to it. When my parents came to visit us in Gainesville in 1978 then I showed her the sweater.

The difference in quality of life between India and US in mid - 1970s was enormous. The huge shopping malls, broad roads, highways, traveling by luxurious cars etc. was a heady fare for a student coming from a socialist country like India where getting a refrigerator required booking for it and 10 years' wait. Similarly for cars or even scooters one had to book in advance and could only get them after 10-12 years. I remember my brother who was an orthopedics surgeon getting his Bajaj scooter in 1975 through Chief Minister Shri. H. N. Bahuguna's quota. It was a strange India. So the lure of a good US life was too much for an Indian student.

Since I was in Florida it was but natural that I should go and see Disney World at the first available opportunity. This was the main Florida attraction located in Orlando which was 100 miles from Gainesville. My American officemate offered to take me to Disney world on one long weekend in February 1975. So he and his wife drove me in their car to Orlando where we not only saw Disney world but stayed in a hotel for couple of days to see other nearby attractions also.

Visiting Disney world was like a fairy tale and it transported you to a different world. I realized then that one could easily get used to the American lifestyle. Whether it was because of the weather (very crisp beautiful February day) or the famous rock band playing in cool night or just the general ambience of the Magic Kingdom I am not sure but it was a really wonderful experience. I could see how such things can really attract visitors from anywhere in the world. Being in Gainesville I went many times to Disney world later on because any guest to our apartment wanted to see it. But I never got the same feeling that I had the first time.

Disney world was also the attraction that brought a lot of Indian embassy officials to UF campus. In those times they used to make an excuse of going and visiting Indian students at UF to solve their problems but the main agenda was to get traveling allowance (TA/DA) for their visit to the Magic Kingdom. Being a Government of India national scholar and later on President of India association I had to arrange on short notice quite a number of times a get together of Indian students and visiting embassy officials.

I remember one such amusing incident during the time of emergency sometime in late 1975. I arranged a meeting of Indian students and Indian faculty at UF with a high ranking Indian Embassy official. He had come basically to see Disney world, but his 'official' visit was to sensitize the Indian students and faculty to the good effects of emergency! So he started the meeting by telling us how trains were running on time and the people came to their offices on time etc. etc.!

An Indian female student who was quite vocal, attractive and a firebrand leftist simply lit into this official. She used the choicest abuses in Hindi against Indira Gandhi and also directed them to the embassy official since he was the representative of 'That evil woman'. I just could not control my laughter at the discomfort the embassy official and some of the Indian UF faculty felt. The UF faculty wanted to curry some favors with embassy official and hence they felt that I was instrumental in insulting our guest. No amount of my explanation that this was a free country and we were citizens of free India and so anybody had the right to say anything, cut any ice with them.

The embassy official who should have been the one complaining to me about the whole episode was totally unperturbed because his main aim was to see the Disney world ! On top of that he enquired about who that attractive young lady was!

Learning to drive and owning a car was another craze of most Indian students in US. In my case somehow I never got that craze but got a car out of necessity. My grocery mate who had a car was leaving for India and so I and my roommate realized that we would be without a transport. In those days the bus service in Gainesville was nearly non existent hence I decided to learn driving. I also decided to buy the car from the grocery mate for $ 200/-. It was an old Ford Impala which was a gas guzzler but in good running condition.

My grocery mate was amazed when I learned to drive in about 15 minutes of his training. So after one month of drive runs with special emphasis on parallel parking I decided to give the driving test. Two other Indian students also went with me in the Ford to the Florida Transport office to give the test.

My number for taking the test came last. The driving inspector sat next to me and I started the car. She immediately told me to stop it and flunked me. I had put the car in gear without releasing the hand brake! I was livid and complained loudly to the Indian student of why he had put the brake. He obviously shot back in anger stating that he also flunked the test because he did not put the brake at the end of the test! After flunking him the inspector told him to put the hand brake so the car will be ready for my test drive. In any case both of us again took the test after 15 days and passed with ease.

In those times it was very easy to get a cheap second hand car and thus $ 200 Ford served me for almost two years after which I sold it again for $ 200 and bought a smaller and more fuel efficient Toyota Corolla (again second hand) for $ 600.

In fact buying a second hand car was one of the first purchases of quite a number of Indian students (my first purchase was SLR camera). Since the gas was cheap and priced at 70-80 cents/gallon this was really a great way to see America. One of my Indian friends at UF was from Chennai (then Madras). He was very dark and as per the fashion of those times sported long hair. He had bought a second hand Volkswagen Beetle a small car and he and his friends went touring the south. In one of the towns of Alabama they were caught speeding. So after the cop gave him the ticket he remarked, 'And another thing I don't like is a nigger with long hair. Go get a haircut'!

University of Florida in 1970s was a very liberal campus. It was voted by one of the US magazines as second most liberal campus after Berkeley. It was also voted as the party school by Playboy Magazine in middle of 1970s. Besides, it was the post-Vietnam era when the sexual revolution was at its height in US.
In my first quarter when I was staying in Beaty Towers I saw this liberal attitude first hand. My Romanian roommate had invited me to a party in one of his friend's apartment. He had also invited some of his professors, their wives and his departmental secretaries. This was not a dance or song party but just a get together of his friends whom I was meeting for the first time. He went early in the afternoon to make the necessary arrangements and I went late in the evening. Just before I left for the party my American roommate offered me a condom! I was aghast but he insisted that such items are necessary and useful in parties.
Another incident of similar nature took place when I was staying in Reid Coop. One day I came back to my dorm around 6:30 or 7:00 p.m. to cook my dinner. When I went into the kitchen I saw around 10-20 of my floor residents standing in the balcony and cheering a striptease show taking place in the women's dorm just across the Reid Coop. This had been going on for quite some time and the lady enjoyed entertaining the boys in our Coop ! I had never seen it earlier because I used to come early around 5 or 5:30 p.m. and leave for my office around 7 p.m. In those times streaking (or students running naked) was also a common sight during football games, open air concerts or just about anywhere in public on the campus.

Similarly there was an American student who lived on my floor in Reid Coop and was very well endowed. So every day in the morning he used to walk naked to the common shower and then walk back naked after his bath to his room which was at the end of the hall. Quite a number of times female students from other dorms came to our dorm to visit their boyfriends and they enjoyed this spectacle. Though there were visitation hours in the dorms for visitors of opposite sex, they were hardly followed. Similarly there were separate dorms for men and women, but there was a lot of mating which went on in these dorms in those times. The American morals were really breaking down !

Halloween celebration on the campus was an extremely raunchy affair with whole scale debauchery, and alcohol and drugs like marijuana were used very liberally. The main event took place in the center of University in Plaza of Americas a big open space between main library and Century Towers. It was really a carnival like atmosphere with loud music, frenzied dancing and obscene floats taken around. All these hedonistic activities were stopped later on by university authorities in late 1970s. Similarly it was a strange sight for students and visitors to see belly dancing taking place in the corridors of student union during lunch break. Initially the sight of the semi naked women gyrating was really shocking, but with time I got blas' about seeing the flesh.

There used to be regular open air concerts by Dave Brubeck and his famous jazz band on the lawns of the University near Mechanical Engineering department. The whole atmosphere used to be pervaded by a strong smell of marijuana. UF campus being very liberal in those times allowed lots of such activities. As US became more conservative in the 1980s all these activities eventually stopped.
Nevertheless this was also the time of increased usage of heavy drugs and Florida became the conduit of these drugs from Latin America to mainland US. Thus there were large scale thefts of electronic precision balances from the labs on the campus since the drug dealers used them to weigh the drugs.

Stealing was a major problem on campus. Couple of times my office was broken into (both on and off campus one) and I lost quite a few things like calculators, watches and other office supplies. Even on the campus there used to be large number of thefts of bicycles. So if you locked the front wheel the back wheel was gone or if you locked both the wheels the frame was stolen. It was very difficult to understand why such thefts took place in a rich society.

Brush with Greatness

My first brush with greatness at UF was with Jimmy Carter who became the American President in 1976.

One day in later part of January 1975 I was coming back in the evening to my office from Beaty Towers when I saw posters all over the campus announcing that Jimmy Carter the Democratic presidential candidate will speak at 8 p.m. in the McCarty Auditorium.

I normally used to go to my dorm around 5 or 5:30 p.m. to cook and after dinner would usually come back to my office in the department to study or do experiments in the lab till about 12 or 12:30 a.m. The quiet atmosphere of the office at night was excellent to study.

Hence when I saw those posters in the evening I thought it might be worthwhile to go and see what a potential President of US is all about. Coming from a political family I was curious about the politics in US and the talk by Jimmy Carter provided an excellent opportunity to find out more.

Thus I went a little early to the auditorium and sat in an aisle seat near the back so that if I got bored I could leave the talk without disturbing other people.

At exactly 8.00 p.m. Jimmy Carter entered the auditorium from the back smiling his toothy smile and shaking hands with the audience as he passed by. He shook hands with me and casually asked where I was from to which I replied India and he moved on.

His thick southern accent was difficult to follow but his smiling face and charming and gracious manners captivated me and so I sat through his speech. After the lecture came the question/answer time. A black woman got up and literally lit up into Jimmy Carter accusing him of racism since he came from the South and calling him names etc. Throughout this question Jimmy Carter simply kept on smiling and answered the question without any rancor or irritation. He never appeared to be perturbed or rattled at all. I was extremely impressed by his demeanor and behavior.

So I came back to my office around 9:30 p.m. and told my officemates that I just saw the next President of US. One of my officemates got livid and told me that I had been in US for only a month and how dare could I pass judgment on the political candidates. 'The next President will be Ronald Reagan' he told me. I had no idea who Reagan was but somehow my gut feeling told me that Jimmy Carter may become the next President. I became so interested in his campaign that I used to read everything on him that came in the newspapers.

So I used to go to the main library on UF campus and read editorials in New York Times, Washington Post, Miami Herald etc. and became quite knowledgeable about Jimmy Carter and his policies. I was delighted when he became the President and I still feel that he was the most decent President that US has had in the last 50-60 years. I used to debate with my American friends and officemates regarding the pros and cons of Carter candidacy and they were amazed at my knowledge. That is when I felt that Americans had become quite illiterate since they hardly read the papers and formed their opinion only from news bites on TV. My crowning glory came when I persuaded successfully my officemate to vote for Jimmy Carter in 1976 Presidential election!

Another great man I met at UF was Vernher Von Braun. He was the father of US space program and a genius rocket expert who designed and developed the V-2 rocket for Nazi Germany and later on came to US after the Second World War. He set the tone for NASA and was its deputy administrator and chief designer of rockets.

Dr. Von Braun and my professor Dr. Erich Farber were good friends. Both were of German-origin and since Farber also played an important role in the design of Saturn 5 rocket, they knew each other quite well. On 15 July 1975 the first US-USSR space docking took place. It was a great achievement in terms of the peaceful space cooperation between two super powers. Dr. Von Braun came to UF to meet Dr. Farber so that both of them could go and see the launch of the US spacecraft from Kennedy Space Center near Cape Canaveral. Naturally they were VIPs so saw the launch from a close range. I also went to see the launch later that day but saw it from 15 miles away !

Thus Dr. Farber introduced me as his star student to Dr. Von Braun. I could only chat with him for 5-10 minutes since both of them were in a hurry to go to Kennedy Space Center. He seemed a very nice and simple man and we had a very pleasant conversation. He told me that I was very fortunate to study with a world-renowned Solar Energy expert.

Stanley Ulam was another great name at UF. He was a Distinguished Professor of Mathematics at UF and was an extremely humble person. He kept a low profile and very few students knew that such a great figure was at UF. He was the true father of the Hydrogen Bomb. This title was usurped by Dr. Edward Teller who was quite an obnoxious person and took most of the credit himself. But it was Dr. Ulam's paper in early 1950s which clearly showed the possibility of a hydrogen bomb and how it could be built. Later on I heard Dr. Teller at UF and in his lecture he appeared very arrogant and pompous. After the talk Dr. Teller had a long meeting with Dr. Farber on solar energy and next day Farber told me how Teller tried to show that he knew much more than him !

I forget exactly how I came to know Dr. Ulam, but he enjoyed Indian philosophy and we did discuss a couple of times some issues in Indian philosophy. Dr. Ulam was one of the few persons in whose presence I felt extremely humble and had a feeling of well being. He used to give excellent seminars and loved to tell wonderful stories of his interactions with brilliant scientists both at MIT where he was a professor and at Las Alamos where he was one of the key scientists in the Atom Bomb Manhattan project.

Another great mathematician at UF was Vasile M. Popov. He was very soft spoken and a thorough gentleman. He had a stability criterion named after him. I took an advanced mathematics course under him called stability theory. It was a very deep course and I was the only mechanical engineering student in it. All others were students and faculty from mathematics department. I was extremely interested in mathematics and it was my favorite subject. Dr. Popov's course was a logical step after a good number of courses in mathematics that I had taken at UF. Dr. Farber once told me that if I took one more mathematics course, then I would have to shift to Mathematics department from Mechanical Engineering!

Dr. Popov had just joined UF as a distinguished professor in 1975 and this was the first time he was teaching this course at UF. I had difficulty in understanding the deep mathematics and so worked very hard on his lectures and used to go to the library to read extra material. Near the middle of the quarter we enquired from Dr. Popov when the midterm examination would be held at which he quietly told us that there will be no examination in his course and the fact that we were attending it regularly was enough proof that we are interested in knowledge. So all of us got an A grade !

There were other well know names at UF during my time. For example Prof. K. Polhauhsen a distinguished Professor in Engineering Sciences Department was one of the pioneers of fluid mechanics with L. Prandtl and H. Von Karman. He was an extremely old man and I saw him a number of times standing on the bus stand to catch the bus. A person like that in India would have been a national hero chauffeured in a car. Yet in US he was another professor with no special treatment. This fact had a tremendous impression on my young mind. Some of my friends who were in Engineering Sciences department used to speak often about him.

Two other great names with whom I interacted briefly were Peter Lowdin and Howard T. Odum.

Peter Lowdin was a Distinguished Research Professor in Chemistry Department. He was a theoretician and a well-known figure in Quantum Chemistry. I came to know about him from my Indian roommate who was doing his Ph.D. in Quantum Chemistry and Lowdin was one of his committee members. Peter Lowdin had joint appointments at University of Uppsala in Sweden and University of Florida. So he used to spend winters in Florida and summers in Sweden. In fact there were quite a number of big names in academia who came to UF because of the weather. They had done their major work in other well-known universities and when nearing retirement they would take an appointment (and sometimes joint appointment) at UF. Peter Lowdin was also a member of the Noble Prize Committee.

I once invited him for the multidisciplinary seminars on Energy that I used to hold in Mechanical Engineering during 1978/79. I was still a graduate student at that time. These university wide seminars had become quite well known and popular and there were a couple of stories written on them in the local newspapers. Thus quite a number of UF faculty used to look forward to an invitation to talk in these seminars. I think it was a remarkable event that a graduate student was allowed to run these seminars and the department gave all the help. Such a thing would be unheard of on Indian University campuses. After the seminar series ended in spring 1979 the chairman of Mechanical Engineering gave a glowing commendation letter to me stating that I as a graduate student could do what his faculty could not accomplish!

These seminars were the outcome of my conviction that nature knows best and that we should learn from it and copy it. This is now known as biomimicry but in those times this field was not so well explored. Thus I used to invite professors and faculty members from different disciplines including engineering, agriculture, entomology, medicine, physics, chemistry etc. to talk on energy. The seminars were held every Thursday in Mechanical Engineering auditorium and the series was spread over three quarters.

I had invited Peter Lowdin to talk on second Law of Thermodynamics and Energy problem. Before the seminar I would go to the concerned faculty member and discuss what he or she would talk on. I would request all of them to talk on how they saw a solution of the energy crisis through their work.

Since this was a popular seminar series and also due to the stature of Peter Lowdin the Mechanical Engineering auditorium which seated 250 people was jam packed. Out of the allotted 50 minutes Dr. Lowdin spoke for 45 minutes on an obscure theorem that he was working on in non-equilibrium thermodynamics and the last 5 minutes on the 2nd law and energy! By the time he finished there were only a handful of persons left in the audience. It was one of the most boring seminars in the series. Thus a well known name does not guarantee that he or she would also be a good speaker. In fact I have found quite a number of times that some very well known researchers are extremely poor teachers and speakers.

H.T. Odum on the other hand was a different fare. He was a good teacher and gave interesting and lucid talks. Dr. Odum was also a distinguished professor in Environmental Engineering and a pioneer in using systems theory in ecology. He had won many international awards and had set up a well-known center of wetlands at UF. He was tall and bulky, with a very prominent nose, but extremely soft spoken. I invited Dr. Odum to give a talk in the energy seminar series.
Dr. Odum gave a couple of talks on energy systems and public policy and the last talk he gave before I left UF for India was on the energy of soul! A lot of people thought that he had gone wonky but I thought that he had the guts and the courage to talk on a subject that he felt was interesting. To my mind the whole basis of scholarship is to conduct research on and talk on subjects which one finds interesting and in those times US educational environment encouraged such ideas.

A regular visitor to UF campus was Dr. Manfred Eigen - a Nobel laureate and the Director of Max Planck Institute in Germany. He used to come yearly to UF and gave a series of lectures on evolution and second law of thermodynamics. I attended these lectures which normally had 15-20 persons in the audience. Dr. Eigen was a great speaker, taught a very difficult subject with great ease and made it understandable. He was a handsome man and was always accompanied by very attractive female assistants which was an added attraction to attend his lectures.

Besides these there was a regular flow of outstanding educators, academicians and well known figures whose lectures I attended on all different subjects ranging from out of body experiences to particle physics to cosmology etc. This aspect of UF campus life I have always missed after coming back to India. Every good university in US has a large number of such intellectual interactions and it is upto the students to partake of and learn from them. I often found that very few students that I knew had the breadth of interest to take advantage of the rich intellectual life that UF offered.

India Association

In 1975 there were about 40 Indian students and half a dozen Indian faculty members at UF. Thus the Indian community was small and there was an Indian student association but it was nearly defunct and non-functional. During some of the Indian festivals like Holi, Dushera or Diwali some of the more active professors used to invite the Indian students to their homes and that is how we used to meet and know about who the other Indians in UF were. Hence there was a general frustration among the Indian students and community about the lack of a platform for getting together and sharing the news about themselves and India.

Having dabbled in student politics in IIT Kanpur I decided that it maybe worthwhile to resurrect the Indian student association. Udai Pratap Singh one of my IITK classmates was another proponent of this idea. So we both decided to do something about it. The first order of business was to find out who the Indian students and faculty were there in UF and get their addresses and phone numbers. So we arranged a meeting of all the Indian students (that we knew) and faculty members in Reid Coop in my room. We removed all the furniture from the room and arranged an Indian ' style sitting place with mattresses and cushions (basically pillows). About 30-40 Indians - both students and faculty attended and that is how the first meeting of the new Indian student association took place sometime in fall quarter of 1975.

I had been warned by old timers that quite a few of the Indian faculty members had tremendous egos and they had always tried to control the association. I thought that was a sign of petty mindedness and so during the meeting, I stressed as much as possible the desire of all of us to work together and run the show. I profusely praised the faculty for doing a great job of arranging the get together of Indians and so assuaged their egos. Since I had taken the initiative I was elected the president. Immediately I made sure that the egotistical Indian faculty members would be the key advisors to the association. It was a different matter that they were hardly consulted later on because I found out that they had no new ideas.

I also informed the general body that since Udai Pratap Singh was equally responsible in getting the whole thing started he should be an integral part of the association though he was not a student at UF. In fact the whole show later on was run only by the two of us.

The first thing we decided to do was to make a newsletter of our association. So every month I used to call the Indian students and faculty, get all their news, get two pages of the newsletter typed up in Udai's office and during weekends go to his office and make 50-60 cyclostyled copies. These copies were put in the mailboxes of students and faculty. After the first newsletter was delivered we started getting lots of phone calls from students and faculty with their news items because everybody wanted them to be put in the newsletter. This was before the era of internet or fax and so this was the only way in which the Indian community could remain connected.

We also planned to show every month an Indian (read Bollywood) movie and to arrange for at least 1 or 2 get together and dinners per year. These events allowed the Indians in and around Gainesville to come together and socialize.

In the mid 1970s, if I remember correctly, US had only one Bollywood film distributor who was situated in New York. So we contacted him and told him that we are a small Indian student association and would like to show the movies to a very small audience. I now forget the exact amount but he agreed to send us the movies at nominal fees, the only stipulation being that we would have to take 12 films per year. We did not have too much choice in selecting the films, but the distributor assured us that we would get the latest movies. The movies therefore used to be shipped in aluminum cans by the Greyhound bus and after their screening at UF again shipped back by Greyhound bus either to New York or to whichever place the distributor told us to send them since these movies used to circulate all over US. The distributor also stuck to the schedule quite closely so that the movies were shown on time and on the day that they were announced.

So every month I would book the auditorium in the Reitz student Union for $ 15 and a projectionist was hired for $ 5. The movie tickets were priced at $ 1/-.
The lady who used to book the auditorium in Reitz Union used to chat with me and had become friendly. One day she remarked, 'You know I would love to go and see India but what is stopping me are the snakes!' I thought she was kidding but she was dead serious and was very afraid of snakes. So when I informed her that I had seen more snakes in my life in Gainesville than anywhere in India she was quite shocked. Such was the knowledge about India of large number of Americans and probably is true even today.

I hated Bollywood movies and found them really childish. Even in India I hardly ever saw them. So after getting the movie started I would come out of the auditorium and sit outside reading or talking to other Indians who would come out for a smoke or some other things. Most of the times the movie print used to be alright, but once we received a movie which had a really bad print and hence the reel broke down a couple of times during the projection. There was an immediate clamor by the audience that their money should be refunded! It was just like in India where paisa wapis used to be a regular refrain for the slightest problem in screening a movie. I could not believe that all the faculty members and even students would want their $ 1 refunded!

Showing movies made the India association very popular. It was the single most important reason for its success. We started getting Indians from cities like Jacksonville and Ocala besides a good number of Bangladeshi and Pakistani students also attended them. With a couple of well organized dinners during Diwali and Holi our association became one of the most active foreign student associations on UF campus.

In fact a lot of Pakistani students became my friends through the Indian student association. It came as a great surprise to me to see so much camaraderie between Indian and Pakistani students. This was mostly true for younger students of our age group (20-25 years of age). However some of the older ones secretly harbored grudges against Indians and once this led to a peculiar situation.

A middle aged female Pakistani student, who had come to US under Pakistan Government Scholarship, used to come regularly to India association movies and dinners. We became good friends. She used to treat me as her younger brother and never stopped giving me unsolicited advice! One of the constant advices she gave me was to never get involved with white American females! I could never fathom why she was so much against the American girls or felt the need to protect me!

One morning I got a phone call from the local police that an Indian female student had been caught shop lifting from a well-known store called Macys. I was aghast and also saw the news item in the local newspaper. So I requested the police to tell me her name and then I found out that she was the Pakistani student. The police later on apologized since they had checked only her UF photo ID. I also sent a letter to the local newspaper asking them to put a correction regarding the story which they put the next day.

It was really sad that after treating her so well she responded like that when the chips were down. Later on whenever she saw me on the campus from a distance she would try to hide and avoid me. We never talked again.

Getting news about India in those times of emergency was very difficult. My father who himself became one of the victims of emergency because of his closeness to H.N. Bahuguna did not write at all about the events taking place in India because of fear of censorship and harassment. The American newspapers were woefully inadequate about the international news since they were least interested in world events that did not directly affect them. Hence whenever I saw a new Indian on the campus I would eagerly talk to him about the situation in India.

One day in the student cafeteria I saw a short, bald and middle aged Indian gentleman eating alone at a table. I went to him with my food and introduced myself. He appeared to be extremely unfriendly and after some time started raising his voice telling me that he did not want any company. I was taken aback by his extreme rudeness and told him firmly but politely that if I beat him up nobody would come to protect him! This immediately brought about a change in his behavior. He was the chief secretary of Bihar and on the run from Indira Gandhi. I think he had aligned himself closely with Jayaprakash Narayan the person who started a mass movement in 1974 which led to the imposition of emergency by Mrs. Gandhi, and hence his desire for anonymity. In any case we became good friends but he left soon to go to some other campus. In those days such 'Indira Gandhi refugees' went from one campus to another trying to discuss with students the issue of emergency and also to remain away from glare of publicity and information.

The activities of the association required a good deal of time and effort and I must have been getting really involved in them when I started getting regular nightmares that I had been demoted somehow to attend high school and I had failed to pass my Indian School Certificate exam. These dreams came very regularly and I used to wake up with perspiration. I could not fathom their meaning, but one day suddenly realized that maybe the unconscious was telling me that my real purpose of coming to UF was to get a Ph.D. and not run an Indian club! So I decided to reduce my activities in the association.

My efforts were further helped by the dissension in the association. As India association gathered momentum through regular movies (which also gave us good income), dinners and picnics some of the older Indian faculty members felt their control over Indian community slipping away. Besides they felt slighted by the way Indian students had behaved with the visiting Indian embassy official. So a prominent Gujarati faculty member decided to start a Gujarati Club. I vehemently opposed the idea because I told all the members that we are Indians first and then only Gujaratis, Maharashtraians, Tamilians etc. Nevertheless the greed for power knows no bounds so I knew that this would be the end of a cohesive India Association.

I therefore decided to resign and one day before the start of an Indian movie I announced my resignation in the Reitz Union auditorium. The audience was taken aback and vehemently opposed my resignation. Still I persisted and handed over all the material to the treasurer and walked out. I had been President of India Association for a little over 9 months.

I was also getting disenchanted with the whole affair since many times I had told the association members that we should hold discussions about some of the major issues in India like energy, education, corruption etc. and how all the Indian students and faculty at UF can work together to provide a solution to some of them. However majority of Indians in UF were not interested in such issues and wanted to see only Bollywood movies and have a few special Indian dinners.

For example I wanted to show good Indian documentaries and movies from great directors like Satyajit Ray or Shyam Benegal but most Indians were interested in seeing movies like Sholay - the Bollywood blockbuster. I did screen this movie and it was the biggest crowd puller of all times. To majority of them this was the India that they identified with. Any type of intellectual discussion about India was not very welcome or interesting because majority of the students were not keen on returning to India.

Nevertheless this desire to show good documentaries to the Association gave me an excellent opportunity to sample the Indian movies archived in the UF library. One movie that I saw is still vivid in my memory and made a tremendous impression on my mind. It was called 'A day in the life of Prime Minister' and was shot by BBC in early 1960. The documentary showed Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru's day from morning (breakfast) to late night dinner. The BBC team had picked January 26, India's Republic Day for shooting.

So in one of the scenes Pandit Nehru was shown sitting in the front row watching the Republic Day parade with Krishna Menon the then defense minister and some foreign dignitary. It was quite a sunny morning so Pandit Nehru was holding a folded newspaper to shade his eyes. The scene showed Krishna Menon as per his nature continuously chatting with the guest. Nehru got quite irritated and said 'Menon can't you stop talking for a bit'. After this rebuke Krishna Menon kept quiet for a few minutes but again started chatting animatedly. By this time Nehru lost his cool and he whacked Krishna Menon on his shoulder with the folded newspaper and told him to shut up! I could not believe that the most democratic Prime Minister of India would behave like a school master with the Defense minister of India! I do not know whether this movie was ever shown in India.

I learnt a lot in running the association for 9 months and had a first hand experience of how we Indians fight each other even in a foreign land since we bring our own little India and our insecurities with us and thus it is very difficult to remain as a cohesive force.

Later on the Indian community at UF increased drastically. Hence today there are thousands of Indian students (both first and second generation) and hundreds of faculty members. Still whenever I visit UF few of the old timers left on the campus do talk nostalgically about the good times that they had when I ran the association.

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More by :  Dr. Anil Rajvanshi

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