Saturday, November 14, 2009



An Indian Students Life in the US in the 1950’s

Bharat J. Gajjar Tue, Nov 10, 2009 at 12:39 PM

An Indian Students Life in the US in the 1950’s

By Professor Bharat J. Gajjar

When I arrived in America in December 1952 things were very different than they are today. They called the Indians “Hindus.” I sailed from Southernton, England to New York on the Queen Mary ship. All the Stewards talked to me in Italian because they thought I was Italian, and then I had to tell them to speak English. It was common place to assign meal seating for foreign students with missionaries. As I was a Hindu the missionaries worked very hard on me, they wanted to convert me into Christianity before my feet touched American soil. One thing I remember vividly is when the Missionaries asked me “Why I am a Hindu? My reply was with a question, “Why are you Christian? Isn’t it because your parents are Christian? I’m a Hindu because my parents are Hindu.” I didn’t know that much about Hinduism at that time and it was then that I made a decision to learn about Hinduism and Christianity so that I could speak intelligently on the subject.

My light complexion made it easy for me to blend into American society, however, some of my friends’ encountered difficulties. On a Saturday, a group my Indians friends and I wanted to go out and everyone agreed that they wanted to go to a bar. Upon entering, the owner saw us and came over to kick us out because of the color of our skin. During that time, I read about an International incident, in the newspaper that an Indian Ambassador was asked to go to the Southern US and give a speech. When he attempted to check into a hotel they kicked him out so he went back to Washington, DC where he lived. I had started working for DuPont de Nemours and Company, in their Textile Research Laboratory. My Supervisor, Bob Casey, called me into his office one morning, to tell me that he had to send me to North Carolina to consult a textile mill. He was concern that I may experience the prejudice of the south. I told him not to worry, that I would be fine. On my way back I went to the railway station and before entering I saw there were two signs. One was for blacks only and one was for whites only. At that moment I had to make a decision. I knew that if I went into the white side they might throw me out, but I decided to go into the white area anyway. Luckily nobody bothered me. On another occasion, a friend of mine who is a little on the dark side, came to Wilmington, Delaware to visit me, and I invited him out for dinner. We went to a Diner on Kirkwood Highway and sat down. Within a few minutes the owner came over to us and said, “You boys get out.” So we had to leave. I’m glad that I had that experience so I know what it feels like to be discriminated against so that I can have more compassion for others. This reminds me of an Indian story about a King and his son. The King appointed a teacher to train his son on how to be a good King. For his last lesson, he brought him before the Kings assembly and gave him three lashes and then said, “Now you know how much it hurts so when you give somebody lashings you will understand the pain and the punishment.”

When I came to Philadelphia and stayed in the YMCA, I used to pay $30 rent for the month. I used the community shower and they gave me one small room with a bed in it. I had small table, a chair and a dresser where I put my clothes. My brother was giving me $100 a month to help with my expenses. My dinner cost $1.50 and that was on the high side. So I told my friend who was my mentor, Bhida, because he was two years older than me and seemed to have a lot of experience on getting by in America. I told Bhida that I didn’t think I could afford $1.50 for dinner every night. So he told me he went to this Italian place where he could eat as much spaghetti and bread as he wanted for $1.00. This sounded great to me, but I didn’t know what spaghetti was. We went to that Italian restaurant and continued to go there every night for a long time. So my dinners for an entire month totaled $30 leaving me $40 for everything else including washing my clothes, breakfast and lunch. I also had to buy books for school and pay my tuition. I didn’t buy many clothes in those days. But one time I needed a shirt and it cost $5.00 so I didn’t buy it. If I was running out of money for food at the end of the month, I had to borrow it from my friends. Then one day I told my friend Mahen Shah that I needed a weekend job and he told me he had a job as a bus boy at a Hot Shop and that they were looking for Kitchen help. I was very interested in the job and took it. It paid .75 cents an hour and I could eat as much food as I wanted. I used to skip lunch and have an early dinner at 3 pm when I got to work. Eventually when summer came I worked the entire summer to pay my college tuition fee. I stayed at that job for 2 years and a summer.

Mahen and I noticed that the waiters made $16 extra in tips per day. There job was to come out to the cars as they drove up, take food orders and deliver it to the vehicles. We were only able to make .75 an hour, so we approached our boss and asked him if we could be waiters. He said, “No, we cannot give jobs like that to you Indians.” I never forgot his words. In the fifties, Indians had no problem with Educated Americans; it was the uneducated and poor Americans that displayed prejudices.

After the first summer I worked at the Hot Shop, I was still barely making it financially, so my brother came up with an idea. He thought I should try to get a job in a textile mill in Philadelphia. Fortunately, I found a great job in a dying and finishing mill for the summer. This job paid me $1.25 an hour and I was happy. When school started again, I returned to doing weekend work. The owner trusted me to work on my own on the weekend and he simply wrote down what he wanted me to do. I used to run into the watchman at the mill often, so in time, we became friends. That year he told me he wanted to have off on Christmas week to spend it with his family, so I offered to do his job for him and managed to get an extra week of work. Part of my job at the mill required me to close heavy machinery and in doing so I hurt my back. This caused me a lot of pain and trouble for many years until I discovered yoga and it cured me.

The last summer I was in college I came to the conclusion that due to my back pain I could not manage to do this job at the textile mill anymore, but I did need to do some kind of job to pay my college tuition. This time Navin came up with the idea of me working at a summer camp and he found me a job working as a Senior Councilor in a Jewish Summer camp. I wore a Yamaka and went to their prayer meetings, and I had a definite foreign accent. The conclusion everyone came to was that I was from Israel. The Rabbi even came to me and spoke in Hebrew to me. Then I had to tell him that I am a Hindu from India. He was very pleased and invited me to tell a Hindu story to the children which I did. I was in charge of ten kids and I had an assistant. As I was a very good tennis player, one of my jobs was to teach the children tennis.

One of the purposes of the Jewish camp was for young Jewish councilors to meet and get married. I remember there was an evening dance on the first day for the councilors and I went, but I didn’t know what was going on. The tradition at camp was to pick out your mate for two weeks on the first day and then after two weeks you switch partners for another two weeks. So a young lady approached me at this dance and asked me if I’d like to go steady. I didn’t know what that meant, so I said, “No.” She was insulted. Then I inquired around, asking some of the other councilors what was going on and they explained it to me. So the next day, during the 2nd evening dance, I asked her if she’d like to dance, and she rudely said, “No.” By then she had selected another mate.

I met a lot of interesting people working at that camp. One was a young man named Larry. He and I became friends and he invited me to go to Atlantic City. I told him I didn’t have much money. He told me not to worry about it; he had a car and enough money. So I went and we stayed overnight and went on the beach the next day. We were walking on the beach and a man came running over to me to ask me a question. He was admiring my perfect brown skin and said, “I have never seen such a perfect tan. What kind of lotion do you use?” I was quite shocked to hear this question. Then I told him that I make my own. Larry and I laughed about this. There were no Indians around at this time, so people weren't used to seeing Indians.

I learned to play Tabla in India and was qualified to teach because I studied over four years. My older brother Navin played Indian classical music on the violin. He had a degree in Visharad which means he could teach violin. I brought a set of Tablas with me from India and Navin and I gave many concerts together. I also learned the mandolin and brought it with me and performed Indian music on it as well. The Indian Embassy in Washington, DC heard about my brother and me and called us to perform one time when President Eisenhower was invited at the Indian Embassy. It was unbelievable to know I was sitting only a few feet away from the President of the United States of America. We felt incredibly special to have such an opportunity to be so close to such a great man. It was an honor to play music for him.

On the weekend a bunch of my friends and I used to go to a place called the International House. It was free to get in, and they gave us tea, coffee and cookies. They played records and we all got together and danced. I didn’t know how to dance when I got to America, but this was where I learned. One time my brother Navin came and a few of us went Bryn Mawr College for a dance where he met his wife Irina.

Our reputation for music was expanding and one school in North Philadelphia decided to have an Indian dancing program for seniors. They contacted me and asked me if I would play tabla for their program. I agreed and rehearsed with them. On the final day of the performance, I got the courage to ask a girl named Roberta if she would like to go out to dinner me. She said, “Yes,” and I went to her house and met her parents and younger brother. When I brought her home, she said, “I forgot the keys inside the house.” Her parents had gone out. She told me I was going to have to climb into the window, go inside and open the door. I did this and let her in. She told me she had a boyfriend in the Navy on our first date, so we remained friends.

After I graduated from the Philadelphia University, which used to be called Philadelphia College of Textiles and Sciences, I decided that I wanted to go to the prom. I had never heard of a prom before. So I asked my Jewish friend Roberta if she would accompany me to the Prom. She happily agreed. She wore a beautiful long dress and I had to rent a tuxedo which cost me $25.00 at that time, it was a lot of money for me then, but I rented it. I also had to buy a flower for her. I borrowed my brother’s car and took her to the Prom. It was in a big hall and a live band was playing. When I entered the room with Roberta all the boys noticed my beautiful date. One of them asked me where I found her. So I told him, “All these women are after me.” Before I took her home I asked her if we could go to the Hot Shop for a milkshake. Upon entering the restaurant, my boss was sitting at the counter and he turned around and said, “Is that you Bharat?” I said, “Yes, sir, I wanted to tell you that I got a job as a Research Engineer with DuPont.” I had a picture taken wearing my tux before I returned it that forever reminds me of that night when I graduated and got my life changing job (See photo below). My starting salary at DuPont was $410 a month and I was very excited about that.

Professor Bharat J. Gajjar when he graduated from College



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