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Full, Bright Memories

For our 60th anniversary this year, SPAN is reprinting articles from past editions that reflect on issues we are reporting about today. For this edition focusing on the Fulbright program, we are reprinting excerpts of this article from March 1988.

Among the first batch of Indian Fulbright scholars selected for study at U.S. universities, M.S. Rajan recaptures his memories of American hospitality and some initial problems he faced in adjusting to the new environment.


The other day I read a brief notice in Foreign Affairs (New York) about Loy Henderson’s memoirs. My mind immediately went back to the early 1950’s when he was the U.S. Ambassador to India. It was largely to him that I owe my first visit to the United States—on a Fulbright Fellowship.

I used to work at New Delhi’s Indian Council of World Affairs (lCWA) in those days. One day, ICWA General Secretary A. Appadorai asked me to fill out a form for a scholarship to study in the United States. I did so, but without any expectation of success in what, I was told, was an all-India competition. A couple of months later, I was informed by the U.S. Information Service that I had been selected for a Fulbright scholarship for admission to Columbia University in New York. I was naturally thrilled.

Just before leaving Delhi for New York, I called on Ambassador Henderson at the American Embassy, which was then located at Bahawalpur House, Sikandra Road. My happiness at getting the scholarship redoubled when he told me that my original application had been lost in the U.S. State Department which, in those days, handled the applications, and that he had sent them a stinker and insisted that I should, come what may, be offered a scholarship, because I was with the ICWA. He told them that I would fill out fresh application forms after arriving in New York.

Although I was then older, at 30, than most Fulbright scholars of today, I was not as self-confidently knowledgeable of America as students these days. The first thing that unnerved me on landing in New York was the fact that few understood my English pronunciation, nor I theirs! I had to often repeat myself—slowly—in order to make myself understood. 

Before getting into a taxi at New York airport, I tipped the porter who had carried my heavy suitcase. Seeing the amount, instead of the customary “thank you,” he laughed and, putting his head and the hand with the tip into the taxi, said to the driver, “Hey, buddy! You’ll like it,” or words to that effect. I wondered what he meant.

Many days later, having gotten used to American money, I understood the porter’s comment. For I had calculated the dollar equivalent of Indian rupees (in 1950, it was about Rs. 5 to a dollar) and offered him a measly 50 cents. At Rs. 2.50 that was two-and-a-half times what I would have offered an Indian porter at that time and I thought I was being generous! Actually, it was a ridiculously low tip for New York. But, instead of offending me by rejecting the tip, perhaps because he realized that I was a foreigner on my first visit to America, he had taken a good-humored view of the incident.

I had been put up at the YMCA Sloan House. Soon after arriving there, I felt terribly thirsty. Not finding a tap in the room or outside, I went to the reception desk and asked where I could get a glass of water. “Oh, every floor has a fountain,” I was told. Puzzled at this rather curt reply, I went up to my floor looking for a “fountain.” I found none. I was feeling miserable and wondering how to quench my thirst, when I saw a young man go near something embedded in the wall and drink water that seemed to suddenly spout from it. This, I realized, was the American fountain. 

In the bus to the university the next day, I offered my seat to a lady who was standing, and she reacted angrily in words I could not follow. Shocked and humiliated, especially because many co-passengers were staring at me as though I had offended the lady, I asked a neighbor, in whispers, what the lady had said, and he smilingly repeated her words, “I am not that old.” To her, my offer, by implication, referred to her age since people in America only offered seats to elderly women!

I had another encounter with this age factor at the home of an American family whose guest I was for the weekend about a year later. The old American couple who had invited me to their place near Philadelphia had also asked their married daughter to join them for supper. That young lady was enthusiastically explaining to me, and an Indian friend who was also with me, her exploits as a hockey player in her younger days. At one point she said, “Now that I am 38...” and suddenly stopped in her tracks. “Oh, mummy,” she screamed and there were some moments of embarrassed silence till her mother tactfully changed the topic. My Indian friend, who had arrived in the United States just the previous day, nervously asked me whether he or I had done something wrong. Better used to American customs, I was able to explain to him that she was shocked at her slip at having unwittingly blurted out her age.

After dinner, my friend, who saw a TV for the first time in his life, moved to the sitting room to watch a program. My hosts and I went into the kitchen to wash dishes. About an hour later, as we got ready to sleep, he asked me in a shocked tone, “I say, what were you doing in the kitchen?” I replied in a matter-of-fact manner, “Oh, I was helping them wash the dishes.” Incredulous, he asked, “But why did you do it? I would never do such dirty work even in my own house.” I then had to explain to him that a houseguest helping a family wash the dishes after a meal is part of the American way of life. But this was something he just could not understand or get accustomed to. 

One Sunday morning soon after my arrival in the United States, I went in search of a copy of The New York Times. I saw a young man hurrying by with a pile of papers and asked him for a copy. He was startled and said, rather curtly, “You get it there,” pointing toward a newsstand. I was puzzled at the boy’s reaction and wondered what I had done wrong now. Anyway, I went to the newsstand and asked for a copy of the paper. The man pointed to a tall pile and said, “There, pick up one.” I went near the pile and could not understand how I could pick up a copy—they all seemed folded together in one huge mass. I continued to stand there, pretending to be looking at something else, till another young man came in, put the cash on the counter, picked up a huge bundle out of the pile and hurried off. It then occurred to me that a copy of the Sunday issue of The New York Times was a huge bundle, as much as four times the size of the paper during the week, which itself was five to six times the size of an Indian paper of those days. And, then, I also realized the mistake that I committed in asking the youngster whom I had met earlier for a copy. Seeing him with the huge bundle, I had mistaken him for a newsboy.

Among the best moments of my American trip were the visits to American homes. I would get invitations for meals and weekend stays even from people I hardly knew. I spent my 1952 Christmas with an American family in far-off Champaign, Illinois. On the evening of my arrival, the lights suddenly went out. My friend’s mother called for an electrician. He arrived within minutes. He was a tall, heavyset gentleman in his sixties. He took out a screwdriver from his hip pocket and moved around the house in a lordly gait, tapping the wiring here and there. On one such tap, the lights came on. The electrician smiled, took out a bill book, wrote out a bill and handed it over to the lady. She looked at the amount and exclaimed, “What? $10! You did nothing!” To which the electrician replied in a firm, dignified tone, “Look lady, you pay for what I know, not for what I do!” For some reason—perhaps the electrician’s dignity or my hostess’ immediate acceptance of his explanation—this episode is still vivid in my memory.

In my international relations master’s class, I was surprised to find young and not-so-young men and women who had worked or who were still working as painters, musicians, nuclear physicists, haberdashers and so on. Intrigued, I asked some of them why they were studying a subject which was unrelated to their present or former vocation. Invariably, their reply was that they were dissatisfied and were looking for a more rewarding career.

This willingness to start education all over again and to make midcareer changes in pursuit of happiness impressed me.

I was also impressed by the students working to pay for their education. In fact, the hostel and the cafeteria in our university were run with the help of students, who apparently managed to study even while doing these part-time jobs. (I could not join them, because I was getting a fellowship.) They would do my typing work, laundry and even supply ice cream, nuts and fruits late at night. The money that these boys earned went toward their education and their availability helped the university reduce its establishment costs.

One serious problem faced in Columbia University was my vegetarianism. On the eve of my first Christmas, the maid cleaning my room asked me what I planned to do on Christmas. I told her that I had an invitation for dinner from an American family living outside New York City. “Ah! You will have lots and lots of turkey and cake!” she said. I explained that I wouldn’t eat turkey, because I was a vegetarian. “You are what?” she asked, surprised. When I explained, she refused to believe me. “You are kidding! How can you live without meat?” She was so astonished that she called some of the other maids and I had to give them a lecture on vegetarianism. I told them that millions of Indians, for hundreds of years, have survived on vegetables and so on. The maids were shocked. One of them blurted out, “And you look so healthy!” Even the university doctor believed that eating meat had something to do with healthy living. When I fell ill, the doctor insisted that it was because of lack of nutritious foods, and insisted that I supplement my diet daily with at least an egg or two. When I told him that I could not do so, he threw up his hands in despair, and recommended some tonic!

 

M.S. Rajan was Professor Emeritus at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), and was formerly director of the erstwhile Indian School of International Studies, now the School of International Studies of JNU.