Bombay for now
(Story of immigrant experience in America)
When I was leaving for the USA, it's president, a peanut farmer from Georgia, was grinning in the glory of the Camp David agreement between Israel and Egypt. To most of us, though, the image of an America, one of whose last helicopters was perched precariously above the roof of the Embassy in Saigon was still dominant. The boat people leaving Vietnam were bobbling in the south China sea. The Soviet Republic, the USSR, had then signed a treaty with the Afghan government permitting deployment of their military in Kabul. And in Tehran, the Shah of Iran was tottering in its last gasp of survival. At home, Indira Gandhi had been reelected to the Parliament but not yet been the prime minister of India, again. And little did I know, one day, as an international student in an American university, many of these events would shape my life and belief in the magnificent melting pot that I would inhabit.
Going to western countries for higher studies has been dream for a vast number of students in India from the time the British brought the public education in India. If it is not for this western education in India, that some liberal locals accepted against their conservative counterparts, I might not have been taking this flight today. And I wonder (and no one is around!), if the westerners did not come, would we be still living under the medieval rulers from the hinterland of Hindukush?
“Kee re tui naki Bilet jacchis (Hey, did I hear you are going to England)?” a friend excitedly asked me when he first heard I will be going abroad. Bilet, as England is locally called, though I don’t know why, have been the dream destination for generations of elite Indians. A ‘bilet pherot’ (England educated) has been THE cream of Indian social hierarchy. The parents dreamt of their sons being educated there, the marriageable girls aspired to marry them and the relatives made sure to bring up the story of their ‘bilet pherot’ cousin or son-in-law among their compatriots. And old freedom fighters who sacrificed their future to free the country from the British rule, didn't mind having such relatives either. They became the new rulers of the society. No wonder that the old Brahmins were so afraid of this new breed that they tried to dissuade people from crossing the sea to England with threat of making them outcasts. It did not work. The glitz of material and money of the new class overpowered the old powers.
When the plane reached altitude, the bell chimed again and the ‘fasten seat belt’ and ‘no smoking’ signs were turned off. The airhostess in green sari distributed a beautiful menu card with a red picture of the Maharaja logo on top. It is a list of foods and drinks they were going to serve in the flight. “You need a card for that?” I whispered in surprise to my friend! Of the choices I had, I decided to get the chicken curry. “Or mutton?” I thought to myself. Too many delicious choices! And orange juice for drink.
The stewards pulled out rolling carts from the back of the plane and started serving us food trays from the racks inside. Inside the tray, several square shaped dishes of different sizes, with plastic wrappers on top, were placed compactly. The main dish of white rice with spicy chicken curry was piping hot. A dish with green cabbage(?) mixed with green cucumber and sprinkles of hair-thin carrot; included was a package of white cream, labeled ‘salad dressing’, “Made in the USA”! A plastic wrapped piece of dinner roll was in a cup along with a packet of butter and a plastic-wrapped piece of cheese, both with the picture of a fair woman in a blue dress with braided hair and ‘Land O Lakes’ written on them; also made in America. A tiny plastic container of doi, labelled ‘yogurt’, a piece of cake, and a narrow plastic packet packed with a spoon, a fork, a paper napkin, tiny packets of salt and pepper and a toothpick; there was also cold water in a dwarf plastic glass with a blue embossed aluminum wrap with “Crystal Glacier” written on it, and a “Product of the UK” label; all tightly assembled inside the twelve-by-six-inch tray. And the air hostesses walked around with hot coffee and tea to serve to the passengers.
We finished our dinner on the tiny table attached on the back of the seats in front of us; and the toothpick served its purpose very well;
thank you! It was past eleven at night; a constant overpowering hum from the plane engine kept us all submerged in the sky. From my window down I could see patches of area below glowing in the flood of flickering lights against pitch black darkness;it was as if the devotees lit millions of deepavali lamps so the gods can find their way to their humble huts. By the time the stewards finished cleaning up, the bell chimed and the “fasten seat belt” sign reappeared. The captain announced that the weather in Bombay was normal and that the visibility was good. He gave us the temperature and announced that we shall land soon. It will be first time that I will be in Bombay, the city by the Arabian Sea. But it will be a brief stop, a transit point; I will be there for a few hours till I board the next plane, a bigger one, the one that will take me, I was told, all the way to New York. On the way, the plane will stop at Rome, Paris and London. The names sounded so glamorous! I only read those names in stories and novels.The airhostess came back again to count the passengers, to check that we had our seat belts fastened, the luggage bin closed, the small table in front folded and that our seats were in the upright position. There was a mechanical groan underneath, that I learned later is the sound of landing wheels coming out from the plane's belly. The earth below was getting closer, the lights brighter on the narrow streets and the moving vehicles appeared clearer. The airport buildings became visible and the red lights along the runway showed the landing path. With a loud thump and screeching sound, we felt a sharp and sudden jerk and the plane landed on the ground, running furiously on the runway. The wings of the plane began to extend out and curve as if to catch as much air as it could. With many more mechanical whining on the wings, the plane eventually slowed down, taking a turn to another runway towards the airport buildings. As it moved slowly to its designated spot, I saw planes from so many countries; planes much larger than ours, till I saw the Aeroflot plane. I might have taken this plane today, I thought to myself, had I chosen to go to the Patrice Lumumba Friendship University in Moscow. I applied there also and they showed great interest. For reasons not so clear, at the last moment I decided to accept the offer to America. Though the USSR was more friendly to India during the Cold War, most students, chose to go to America. So did I. The air staff opened the door to the airport terminal: a narrow, closed corridor leading towards the lighted building. It was the Santa Cruz airport in Bombay.