Sea Journey to Liverpool and Arrival in Chicago
I had neither taken the GRE nor the TOEFL conducted by the ETS, the standard requirements normally insisted by the US universities for admission to their graduate school. I received communication from the University of Chicago that I should get my communication skills in English tested by the Educational Wing of the US Embassy in New Delhi. I went to the USEFI office in Barakhamba Road near Connaught Place. They were satisfied with my performance and communicated the finding of their assessment directly by TELEX to the University of Chicago.
Obtaining a US visa was a smooth process then. No prior appointment with the consulate was required. I went directly to the main building of the US embassy in Chanakya Puri. Its counsellor section received me with the courtesy due to a student admitted to the University of Chicago. I was asked to leave with them my contact details as the Embassy had planned to hold an orientation programme for students joining American universities. The orientation programme was held in an auditorium in the Indraprastha Estate. The main speaker was Mr. Chester Bowls, the ambassador of the United States to India. He congratulated us on getting an opportunity to study in the US universities. He called us the cream of the cream of India. He cautioned us that if we thought that New Delhi was a world class modern city we were in for a big surprise should we land at JFK airport in New York City on our arrival in the US. The other speakers who spoke to us in the orientation programme briefed us on mundane matters such as how to use post office, banks, the social security number and general dos and don’ts. Their concern was that our conduct should not become a cause of embarrassment to ourselves or to our country. Our concern was our ability to follow the American English accent. I was invited along with a few other students from among those who had attended the orientation programme for a candle-light dinner by one of the consulate officials to his residence.
I was now excited at the prospect of going to the US for higher studies. I have pointed out earlier how I spent the period of four months between leaving the Gwyer Hall and my departure. I decided to spend part of my journey travelling by sea and the remainder by air. I was scheduled to start my sea journey on 1st September 1964 from Bombay.
I am amused to share that when sightseeing in Bombay before boarding the ship the tallest building in the city was pointed out to me. It was either the LIC building or the Reserve Bank building no more than ten storeys tall. But the local folklore was that the pagadis of Marwari seths slip when they look at the top of that building! Their pagadi would have fallen off from their head had they tried to see the top of the Empire State building. My first reaction when I saw the skyline of the New York City from the plane before landing at the JFK airport was that New Delhi was indeed a small town compared to this mega metropolis.
The country’s foreign exchange reserves must have been tight then. I needed some foreign exchange for meeting sundry expenses during the three weeks of the sea journey and for a week in London and Ithaca, New York, before reaching Chicago. I met a friend of Pitaji's who was a senior officer in the Reserve Bank in New Delhi for getting permission to take out the princely sum of US$ 250, that too on repatriation terms. I was to return to the country this amount in three years.
I and my friend Madhusudan Dixit, who was also going to the University of Chicago, had made our bookings to Liverpool, England, by the boat SS Cilicia. It was a single class boat and its passengers had equal access to all of its facilities. Madhusudan and Ishared a cabin in Cilicia for three weeks. The combined fare of the sea and the air travel from Bombay to Chicago was Rs 3400. I used the saved amount of scholarship money for meeting part of the cost of the passage and the rest was covered from a financial grant Pitaji had obtained from the U.P. Government.
I was the first person from the family going abroad for study. Therefore, my uncle Shambhu Nath Chachaji came to Bombay from Golagokarnnath in U.P. to see me off. It was indeed a proud moment to be given a farewell at the Bombay port by the Chachaji and many other relatives. Soon after the boat moved away from the dockside it entered the Arabian Sea by going around the Colaba bay. As the boat moved away from the Gateway of India into the open sea, I had mixed feelings. I felt uneasy that I was leaving the security of my country and at the same was happy in the anticipation of life ahead in the University of Chicago. I took the upper berth in the cabin as a porthole was at that height and I could see sea waves from my berth. In the early morning of the day following our after departure from Bombay, the boat reached Karachi. It had a twelve hour stop in Karachi for new passengers to join. We were told that we could disembark and go sightseeing in Karachi as long as we returned at the very latest by 5 pm. The boat was scheduled to sail from Karachi at 6 pm.
Madhusudan and I hired an auto rickshaw for the day for seeing Karachi. Madhusudan showed me the stamp on his passport by Pakistani immigration. I had no such stamp on my passport. I became worried that on my return to the ship I faced the possibility of being detained by the immigration officer, and instead of going to Chicago may end up as an illegal immigrant in Pakistan. This lurking fear of ending up my life in a Pakistan jail took away from me the pleasure of spending a day on foreign soil. Having seen the Marine Drive of Bombay, the Karachi sea front appeared unimpressive. The auto rickshaw driver took us around Karachi. There were no Mughal monuments in Karachi. I skipped eating lunch that day when I saw meat hanging outside the eating places the auto driver had taken us to. I asked the driver to take us to the National Museum of Pakistan in Karachi. The museum had on display an impressive collection from excavations of ancient sites of Mohanjodaro, Harappa and Taxila. I saw in the museum the original famous Mohanjodaro seals. We finally returned to the port for getting back on the boat. My heart was racing with anxiety as I faced the immigration officer on duty. He smiled at me and asked whether I had enjoyed my day in Karachi. When I answered yes by a nod he was happy and waved me in without asking for my passport.
Passengers who got on the boat from Karachi were mainly students from Pakistan going to England for studies. I made friends with some of them. The Pakistani boys were excited about the Beatles and knew famous Beatle songs. I had not heard of the Beatles in Delhi and did not know that they were the craze of the world in 1964. I spent my time in the boat playing bridge with the Pakistani boys.
The next port we touched was Aden. I was wiser now when I stepped out to see Aden. It was a city of no distinction inside a volcanic crater. I saw people buying some type of green leaves from the roadside. I asked why people are buying those green leaves. It was explained to me that chewing those leaves known as khat made the Arab males manlier and gave them a feeling of euphoria. It was their favoured pastime to sleep in the afternoon after chewing those leaves. I did not understand the explanation then.
I was careful with my money and did not want to spend it on buying what I did not need. I saw a pocket Sony transistor radio on sale for US$ 5. A hoarding prominently displayed by the shopkeeper selling the radio was ‘As advertised in the Life magazine’. I could not go much wrong in spending 5 US dollars. I made my first purchase using some of my precious US dollar. It was a medium wave radio. From the boat I could receive only broadcasts of Arab vocal and instrumental music.
The life in the boat revolved around food. At 6am bed tea with toast was served in the cabin. At 8am we went for breakfast to the dining room. Around 11 am fruit juice and snacks were served on the deck. Lunch was at 1 pm. At 4 pm high tea was served. A 8 course dinner served with a printed menu of the day was the climax of day’s gastronomic activities. I wish I had kept some of those beautifully printed dinner menus as souvenirs for the amusement of my grandchildren now. Passengers were invited to the captain’s table by turn. Live band and dance followed the dinner.
I could hardly enjoy the lavish meals served in the ship as they catered mainly to the non-vegetarian taste. In every meal there was only one standard item for vegetarians like me. It was rice with Indian curry. One day I went to the Ship’s doctor complaining of constipation. He remarked, “You are a strange case. All other passengers are complaining of complications arising out of overeating!”
We entered the Red Sea. I signed up for a sightseeing trip to the Pyramids in Giza and Cairo. It was offered at an affordable cost and even a student like me did not want to miss this once in a life time opportunity. At 5 am in the morning we were to take a coach from Port Suez. The final destination of the sightseeing excursion was a drive along the Suez Canal to Port Said. It took our ship 16 hours to cross the Suez Canal, a much shorter journey from Asia to Europe than the three weeks that used to be spent going around the African continent in pre-Suez days. The Suez Canal was indeed an engineering marvel and the fastest marine route linking Europe and Asia.
I was impressed to see the pyramids. In one of the pyramids there was a crawling passage to reach a chamber located somewhere in the middle of the structure. It was moist inside the pyramid. The explanation for the humidity inside the sealed structure was the trapped moist air exhaled by the visitors. In the complex adjacent to the pyramids was the Sphinx. I did not have a camera and nor did my friend. The visit to the pyramids has remained stored in my memory. Cairo was more modern than Bombay. It had impact of Europe on it. I saw the National Museum in Cairo. The main gallery of the museum was the Tutankhamen gold. It glittered brighter than the gold souk I saw in Dubai many years later. Each gallery of this museum was a leaf from the book on the 5000 years of the Egyptian history. A meal was included in the tour package. We were taken to a restaurant of a good hotel. A rumour that the meat served was that of camel and horse discouraged many of my non vegetarian companions from enjoying their lunch. I was served spaghetti with tomato sauce. It was my first experience of Italian food. I was amused to eat slippery long noodles. The Cairo sightseeing ended with a visit to the main mosque. There a Mullah told me that in this mosque no prayer gets unanswered if asked from Allah with piety. I made a prayer and truthfully acknowledge after fifty years that it was favourably answered.
From Cairo to Port Said the drive was on a road running parallel to the Suez Canal. The canal was one ship wide. Therefore movement in it was as per up and down schedules. The side of the canal facing away from Egypt was desolate and was part of the Gaza desert. By the dinner time we were back in the boat. The captain of the ship had arranged a magic show for entertainment of the passenger on the ship anchored at Port Said. I remember even today that magic show.
Now our boat entered the Mediterranean. It was calm like a lake. We anchored off the coast at Nicosia in Cyprus. By now I was well adjusted to life on boat. One of the activities was to estimate the distance in nautical miles the boat would cover in 24 hours. The captain estimated a figure and we were to make an intelligent guess by looking at the sea conditions. Each day the winner who predicted the figure closet to the actual received a prize from the captain. Our boat went round the Rock of Gibraltar which we saw from a distance and cruised towards the English coast.
We disembarked at the Liverpool docks and went through immigration and customs. Then Indian citizens did not require a visa to enter UK. The immigration officer marked ‘valid for six months on my passport' and waved me out. I had nothing to declare at the Customs. I was on the land after enjoying three weeks of the sea. I took the boat train to London from Liverpool. Sudhir had moved to London from Bombay. I was looking forward to spending couple of days with him. I received a message that he had gone out of town and had asked a colleague in the bank to meet me on my arrival from Liverpool. Accommodation for me was booked by him in the YMCA on Tottenham Court Road. There was a South Indian Restaurant nearby. I had my first full meal of Indian food, which I had missed in my three weeks-long sea journey. I made two useful purchases in London. I bought myself a Harris Tweed jacket and a pair of Hush Puppies suede shoes. I had no sightseeing agenda and enjoyed my first underground tube rides. I think I was strolling in Hyde Park when a photographer approached me to take my picture with pigeons for a few shillings and deliver it to the YMCA. I got my picture taken to remember my London visit. My father’s friend in Madras had given me two tins of canned mangoes for his son who was in Madison, Wisconsin. He had said that I could eat these mangoes if I was not able to deliver them to his son. I had never entered a kitchen during the five years of the hostel life. There was no opportunity for me to use my mother’s kitchen either. I neither knew how to cook nor knew how to use kitchen appliances. I wanted to open one of the cans of mangoes. I did not know what an appliance used for opening tin cans was called. I was too embarrassed to ask the shopkeeper that I needed to open a tin can. I saw something I thought I could use to open a can with. It had a small knife at one end and a screw like metal piece at the other end. I struggled to open the can with what I had bought. I managed to open the can of mangoes by use of brute force as I was hungry and did not want to go out to eat. In Ithaca my friend Nand Lal opened a can of chickpeas easily before me. I asked him to show me how he did it. When I showed him what I bought in London thinking as a can opener he had a big laugh. I had bought a tobacco pipe cleaner! I did not smoke and so happily parted with it by giving the pipe cleaner to Nand Lal. In London one evening I walked to Piccadilly and saw a theatre that was showing Cleopatra starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Rex Harrison. I spent money to see that film for the second time. A doubt was raised in my mind by the person with whom I had gone to see this film in Bombay that in the censored print of the film shown in India, Elizabeth Taylor puts her hand inside the basket containing an adder for her finger to be bitten but in the international version she puts the adder inside her blouse. Come to think of it, I spent both money and time for getting this doubt cleared. The fact is both versions showed the same suicide scene in which Elizabeth Taylor inserted her hand in the basket containing the adder. Our imagination had run wild.
At the end of my stay I had to take a tube to the airport. I did not want to spend money on a taxi to reach the nearest tube station from the YMCA. My suitcase did not have castor wheels. It weighed more than 20 kg. I carried it in one hand and in the other I had my brief case full of books. I walked by Buckingham Palace and was in no mood to enjoy sightseeing. I felt miserable in carrying heavy luggage and walking what seemed like a mile.
I flew from London to New York perhaps by Pan Am airlines. I was served non vegetarian meal in the flight which I could not eat. I reached the JFK airport sometime around 3 pm and after going through immigration entered the departure area for domestic flights. I had a flight from La Guardia airport to Ithaca. I did not know how I would shift from JFK to LaGuardia. I saw a counter of Mohawk airlines I was taking for my flight to Ithaca. The counter was unmanned and I did not know how to contact someone who could help me. There was a telephone kept at the counter of the airlines. I picked it up and someone came online. A person came out and arranged to send me by helicopter from JFK to LaGuardia airport. I had my first helicopter ride, and that too, across Manhattan. I saw downtown New York City from the helicopter. From the air I could identify the Empire Estate and the Pan Am buildings and was indeed impressed by this surreal wonder on Earth.
The plane I flew in to Ithaca was not much different from the Dakota planes used for flying to Port Blair. It was early autumn but upstate New York was colourful and beautiful from the air. I spent two days with Nand Lal in Ithaca. He had joined Cornell University a year ago. I saw keenly how easily he prepared a meal. He opened a can of garbanzo beans and stirred its contents in a pan in which he had fried onions. He also put a whole egg plant wrapped in aluminium foil in the oven, and after it was baked removed the pulp and stir fried it with onion and ginger pieces. We had choley and baigan bharta for dinner. For bread he baked the Syrian bread in oven and it tasted like the delicious tandoori roti of India. I was not only impressed by his culinary skills but developed confidence that if needed I would be able to cook such meals myself.
I landed at the O'Hare airport in Chicago. From the airport I took a coach to the Palmer House in downtown Chicago and by a taxi from there to the International House of the University of Chicago. I felt happy to have reached my destination after a month long journey from Bombay.
I was in for surprises soon after my arrival in the University of Chicago. I had not opened a physics or maths book for the past five months. I found out on reaching the Department of Physics in the Eckart Hall that all the new entrants to the graduate course were to write a placement test the following morning. My performance in the placement test was a total washout. I could not even answer problems involving the application of elementary physics. The Graduate Student’s Advisor, Sol Krasner, remarked that he had expected a much better performance from me. I had come a full circle and discovered to my disappointment that I was once again at the bottom of the class.
When I went for my first meal in the cafeteria of the International House I could pick out of the available items only boiled rice, boiled peas and carrots and butter milk which I could eat. The thought that each day I have to make meals out of these items unsettled me. I was in for a bigger shock. When I went for my shower I found to my horror that it was a common shower and was being shared by persons who bathed naked. I withdrew and decided to take my shower after 10 pm as I thought I would be alone then. I discovered that many others thought like me and had come to take their showers at that time. I was raised with a sense of personal privacy and was not ready to adjust to the practice of common showers.
I got a lucky break. I was visited in the International House by Keshav Dev Sharma and Shyam Manohar Pandey. They were much older than me and had joined the University of Chicago a couple of years before I did. Keshav Dev Sharma had worked with my uncle, Krishna Murari Chachaji, as his stenographer. He subsequently did his M. A. in sociology from Lucknow University and had joined the University of Chicago for graduate studies in social sciences. Shyam Manohar Pandey was a Ph.D. in Hindi and was on a teaching/research assignment in the South Eastern Studies Center of the University. My uncle had contacted K D Sharma and told him that I would be joining the University of Chicago. Mr Sharma had a car. He took me to his apartment, which he shared with Dr. Pandey, for dinner. Sharma and Pandey gave me a tasty meal of the type of vegetarian food I was used to. They were living in an apartment near the University. The apartment had a bedroom used by K D Sharma, a living room used by S M Pandey, a dinning room and a kitchen. They anticipated from the look on my face that I was keen to share an apartment with other Indians living near the campus of the University who cooked Indian food like they did. They deliberated and decided to offer me to move in with them. They shifted the dinning table to the kitchen and vacated the room. It was spacious and had a black and white TV which I could use. I readily accepted their offer. Next day I met the Director of the International House and told him my intentions to move in with two persons from India associated with the University of Chicago. He discouraged me against moving out of the International House. He emphasised that new foreign students by convention were expected to stay at least in the first quarter in the International House. More over I had already paid the room rent for one quarter to the International House. But I was firm in my resolve to move out of the International House and moved to the apartment of Sharma and Pandey. But I could not live with them for long. That is an interesting story in itself. I have written it in the next chapter.