To read chapter 1 click here Chapter 1
Hyderabad –Where it all started
A Bicycle Rikshaw Driver
My youthful exuberance concealed the rapid thumping of my heart. The time had come for me to leave my home and go on a voyage toward an uncertain future. It was early December, 1962. I was on my way to Bombay to obtain my visas for the onward journey to the United States of America. There was a rickshaw waiting outside our home in Nallakunta, Hyderabad, to take me to the Nampally railroad station. Before leaving I touched my grandma’s feet as a mark of respect and to seek her blessings. She was sitting on the floor by the living room window, her usual place for reading her religious books. She was glad that Usha, my maternal uncle Sriniwas’s wife, was accompanying me until Pune as I embarked on my long journey. It was a good omen, she said, to have a ‘savashna’ (a married woman) accompany me. She touched my head lightly with her right-hand fingers, as she held her pothi (religious book) in her lap with her left hand and looked at me through her round glasses.
“Jaa ata, sapta samudra palikade,” she said, which means “Go now, and cross the seven seas” in Marathi. She was referring to the Hindu mythology that she had read. According to Hinduism, there are seven worlds in the universe, seven seas in the world, and seven Rishies (gurus) called sapta rishis. Crossing the seven seas meant undertaking a bold adventure.
The desire to go to United States got into me after a year working in the Andhra Pradesh State Electricity Board. I was a graduate of the Osmania University, Hyderabad, with a Bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering. Representatives from the Electricity Board had come to our campus and recruited us as Junior Engineers. I was assigned to a post in the village of Hanamkonda, about a four-hour drive from Hyderabad.
One of my duties was to go in a pickup van with a crew of day laborers to isolate and fix faults on power transmission lines when there was an electric failure. Four months into the job I was involved in a severe car accident. We were returning from a remote corner of a village when our driver lost control of the van and hit a tree. I was sitting in the front bench seat to his left (cars in India have a right hand drive). The impact bent the steering wheel, which hit my right leg and dislocated my right hip joint. I was bleeding from cuts on the back of my right palm, right elbow, and the back of my head. A passenger bus that was just behind our van picked us up and took us to a hospital in Warangal, the next big town. The surgeons placed my hip bone back in the socket and closed the open wounds with sutures.
My dad, Bhao Rao, came to the hospital, along with his colleague from the Regional Research Laboratory (RRL) in Hyderabad where he worked. His name was Dr. Mohan Babu Naidu, who owned a car and also happened to be our landlord. They brought me back to Hyderabad to recuperate. I never went back to the village.
It took me four months to learn to walk again. The Electricity Board transferred me to the Superintending Engineer’s office in Hyderabad. It was a desk job to perform technical correspondence and to review and approve estimates for residential electric services. The Superintending Engineer’s office was next in line to the Board’s Chief Engineer’s office and therefore had a lot of clout. Because of this, I was able to influence the regional Engineer’s office in providing temporary power extension for my aunt’s wedding at a time when there were power cuts and restriction on use of electricity during peak periods.
My job, however, had scant prospects of advancement. Hyderabad had become the capital of Andhra Pradesh. The political wind in Hyderabad was turning in favor of making Telugu, the Andhra language, the official language to conduct business in addition to English. I was a Maharastrian and we spoke Marathi in our house. In high school I had studied in Hindi medium and then switched to English medium in College. I was familiar with a few words in Telugu by interacting with the servants who came to our house but never achieved fluency. Everyone in my office spoke in Telugu, which put me at a disadvantage. Krishnamurthy, who was my classmate in the Engineering College and now an officemate, would hobnob with my boss in Telugu and always got his attention. I never could figure out if he was talking business or gossiping. Even if I had learned Telugu I knew I was not going to be one of them. I was always going to be an outsider.
Meanwhile, my close friend from high school and college, Surendra Gupta, had obtained admission for study at the Imperial College of Science and Technology in London. Another friend from the Engineering College got a job in the Alwyn Metal Works, a private enterprise in Hyderabad, through some connection.
I was thinking about my future. I could stay where I was and face a lackluster career or take a bold step and improve my chances for a better life. I knew of some people who had degrees from abroad and had secured lucrative positions in India. A foreign degree was considered superior to an Indian degree. The United States seemed to be a better fit than Europe or Australia, both culturally and linguistically. I thought the European society was class conscious and some countries like Germany required knowing the native language. Australia was known for discriminating against admitting foreign students in their colleges.
I had always been a good student ranked at or near the top of my class. When I was about eight years old, my dad took me to the Dr. Davare elementary school near Badi Chowdi police station in Sultan Bazar to register. My dad had provided preliminary schooling to me at home. The head master tested my reading and writing skills. He told my dad that I showed promise, but his recommendation was that I should start in the second grade. He said that they could promote me after observing my progress for six months. That’s what happened. Within my first year I skipped a grade and to top it off was ranked first in the class in the fourth grade.
My scholastic success continued later in the Keshav Memorial High School, an all-boy’s school, where my English teacher Mr. Balakrishnan and math teacher Mr. Mashalkar took special interest in me and three other boys who showed promise of excellence. Mr. Balakrishnan recommended English movies for us to watch and extra books to read. He was a bachelor and stayed at the YMCA close to the high school. He wore cream-colored suits, white shirts and regimental ties, and spoke with a nasal South Indian accent. When the Royal Shakespearian Company visited Hyderabad and staged The Merchant of Venice at his YMCA he bought us tickets to attend the show. Mr. Mashalkar wore Indian clothes and chewed Paan (betel leaves filled with betel nuts, spiced with other condiments such as coconut and closed with a clove). He conducted special advanced classes for us, the core group, during summer vacation, free of charge, so that we would stay ahead of the class the following year.
Our statewide high school board exams were held in a location different from our school, usually at one of the local universities. I had to get up early to catch a bus and arrive at the location on time. We sat at small, single tables arranged in rows and columns. A stranger would supervise and conduct the exam. Sometimes we would have two examinations to cover two subjects on the same day, with a break in between. On the day of the math exam Mr. Mashalkar waited outside and checked with us after the exam on how we did.
The results of the board exams were announced in the local newspapers after six weeks. Our papers were graded by teachers from other schools nominated by the board. Each student had a number assigned that he or she put on the paper instead of his/her name, so that the teachers who checked the answers did not know whose paper they were evaluating. On the eve of the announcement of the exam results, students could go to the printing press and see the results posted on a board. Those ranked highest (first twenty five) would see their names listed which was a sign of special honor. Others, who passed the examination, would see their assigned numbers in one of the three groups of first, second and third class depending on their grade. This used to be an extremely stressful time for students. I had read that sometimes students who failed committed suicides by jumping in wells when they could not swim. When the results of my high school board exam came out, my name was listed at the sixteenth position out of over three thousand students. That paved my way to get admission to the most coveted Nizam College.
The Nizam College was a two year junior college where I selected the mathematics track with the aim of joining the Engineering College. Every day I bicycled five miles from my home to the college. The transition from high school to college was intimidating in the beginning, but I did well during the two years. The examination procedure for the final year of the college was similar to the high school board exam except we did not go to another location. The exams took place in our own college. Getting into the Engineering College was dependent on how good I fared in my senior year. I kept my fingers crossed. On the day prior to the announcement of the results for my senior year, I was not particularly interested in trekking to the newspaper office. It was raining.
At about six in the evening as I was sitting with my family, my friend Suresh came to our house on his bicycle. I wondered why he came.
“Arè, tu chhupa rustam hay. (You are a hidden smarty, you are),” he said in Hindi. The phrase chhupa rustam is used for someone who outwardly appears simple and gullible but in reality is very smart and clever.
“Kyon? (Why?)” I asked.
He said he had already been to the press and saw my name listed on the board that meant I was in the group of students ranked the highest.
With this result, getting into the Engineering College was a shoo-in. I, however, had to go through the ritual of scholastic evaluation and appear for an interview before a five judge panel before being admitted. I learned that one of the persons on the panel was J. C. Hardikar, Chief Engineer of the Andhra Pradesh Electricity Board and a cousin of my maternal uncle’s father in law Dr. Hardikar. I was worried that if I made a mistake I would be the laughing stock in my uncle’s family. But then I thought that because I knew him it did not mean that he knew me. I had never met him and we had never been introduced. The interview lasted less than five minutes. It appeared to be a formality rather than an in-depth examination of my profile.
After enrollment I discovered that the Engineering College had assigned me a roll number one. It might have been because my name started with the letter “A.” Many a professors started addressing me as Mr. Roll Number One rather than by my name.
College of Engineering, Osmania University
After all this success, I do not know what happened to my brains in the Engineering College. In my first year of a three year curriculum I did not fare well in the subject of Strength of Materials, one of the easiest of subjects that required calculation of forces and tensions in beams, trusses and cantilever bridges by use of algebra and trigonometry. These were the subjects I was good at. After the exam I knew I was going to get a failing grade. I felt so bad that I seriously considered dropping out. It was better to leave on my own than face failure. I had no idea what I would do after dropping out.
That afternoon I mentioned my intent to my mom. My dad was out somewhere and I had another test coming up the next day. Time was of essence.
“No. Go, talk to Babu.” My mother said. Babu was the nickname of her younger brother Sriniwas whom we called Babu Mama. In India Babu is a generic name used to address young men. Mama means maternal uncle. He was married into the well known Hardikar family. My mom was the eldest of five siblings. Babu Mama was the next followed by Sumati (Baby Maushi), Narayan (Nana Mama) and Gangu (Pappi Maushi). Maushi is a generic name of maternal aunt just as Mama is the generic name for maternal uncle in Marathi.
I bicycled to his home in the evening. He lived with his wife Usha in Hardikar Bagh, a neighborhood named after the Hardikars, in a spacious, palatial bungalow owned by her father. I waited for him on the outside veranda, until he returned from work, took a shower and settled down.
“What’s the matter?” He enquired, looking at my sour puss face, as he eased into the wicker chair facing me, and took a sip from the cup of tea.
I explained what had happened and that I was thinking of dropping out of the Engineering College.
“Acchu, don’t do it,” he said, calling me by my nickname. “What’s the worst that can happen? You may not get a first class in the end but you will at least have a degree, and that is more important. You will have a job.”
I reluctantly agreed, and continued with the rest of my exam. I did well in everything, except the subject of Strength of Materials. Later, in the second year I appeared for a supplementary make-up exam in that subject and passed, that enabled me to continue with my curriculum. But, I had lost the momentum. Babu Mama was right. I graduated from the Engineering College with a second class not the coveted first class that I was used to throughout my high school and junior college years.
I was recruited by the State Electricity Board right after graduation. Perhaps because of my success in high school and junior college, I had an unfulfilled desire to achieve something big, to make something out of my life, to go to the United States and try my luck.
The financial odds were against me. My grades were not competitive enough to secure a graduate assistantship. Getting admission in a college and supporting me with private funds was my only option.
My dad earned a good living. He was a scientist, with a Master’s degree in Organic Chemistry from the Ferguson College in Pune. We were middle class, not poor, but he did not have the money to support me in a foreign land. He frankly told me so. His name was Ganesh, but every one called him Bhao Rao. Bhao is a generic name for brother in Marathi and Rao is a suffix attached to any name to show respect.
Dad was the sole offspring of his parents; Sadhashiv and Uma. For as long as I knew, my grandfather had been sick and bedridden on a thin mattress that was spread on the floor in the family room. He had suffered a stroke and paralysis. I never saw him walking. We heard he had a short temper and lost his job because he had an argument with his boss. I sometimes helped my grandmother take him to the toilet. Toilets in those days were the hole in the floor kind. Both of us would lift him from his armpit (we could never lift him all the way up) and sort of drag him. Whenever I unknowingly hurt him I would receive a harsh slap on my hand. He died when I was fifteen.
Dad had eight children – my elder brother Prabhakar, Shantaram (brother) who died when he was six due to complications of diphtheria, me, Jayanti (sister), Dinanath (brother), Pushpa (sister), Shri Rang (brother) and the youngest sister Meera. Counting my grandma and my mom he had ten mouths to feed.
Bhao Rao was five feet six inches tall with thick curly hair combed back, like Joseph Stalin. I don’t remember him getting upset about anything. He never scolded us. We were told that during his college years he used to run up the Parvati Hill and swim through the swirling waters of the Mula – Mutha River in Pune. He was also an expert mathematician. In Hyderabad he provided private tuition in math to a rich Nawab’s daughter. As the story goes he may have moved to Hyderabad becuse his dad was a supervisor in the electric power plant off of the Hussein Sagar reservoir (also known as Tank Bund).
Dad was fond of telling stories about scientists. Such as a story about Michael Faraday, the man who discovered Benzine while investigating the ignition point of heated oil vapor. He told tales of the romantic dreams of Friedrich Kekulé who was perplexed by the difficulty of representing the bonding of the six carbon atoms and an equal number of hydrogen atoms in Benzine. He would visualize, in his daydreams, long rows of these atoms writhing like snakes. Then one day, my father would describe, Kekulé dreamt that one of the snakes had its tail in its mouth. His mystery was solved. Kekulé realized that the carbon atoms could be connected in a ring formation, rather than as a row. That was how the ring structure of the Benzine molecule was discovered.
The story of Mary Sklodowaski, later known as Madam Curie, was the one that had the most effect on me. My dad’s eyebrows rose when he described how Mary had little money, when attending the Sorbonne University in Paris, and how, many times, she stayed hungry and once fainted in her class. He described how she conducted laborious research in a dilapidated laboratory to discover radium for which she and her husband, Pierre, received a Nobel Prize. I used to dream of getting a Ph. D and becoming a famous teacher or a scientist even if I had to suffer hardship. Mary Curie was my inspiration.
Dad’s research interest was making paper out of pulp. Sometimes I accompanied him to various tailors in Sultan Bazar, a busy and crowded commercial strip, to collect remnants of cloth to be used to make the pulp needed for handmade paper. One day he took me to his lab that was just behind my high school in Narayan Guda to see his equipment and the various kinds of paper he had developed. There were blotting papers (to be used to blot wet ink from paper that had words written by a pen just dipped in an ink well). There were many other varieties of paper, some colored, some thick for use as stationary or for book binding. Once, before my science exam in high school he gave me some hints about the topics to pay more attention to and to my surprise we got questions on those very topics. I was prepared.
Perhaps the successive child births took a toll on my mother, Indumati. Everyone called her Indu Tai. Tai means elder sister in Marathi. She was barely five feet tall, fair complexioned with long, waist length hair that she parted in the middle and tied in a knot in the back. She had finished high school. She always carried a worried look. She would get up early every day and help my grandmother cook the morning meal. My grandmother was very religious. She worshipped the idols placed in a built-in open shelf in the white concrete wall in the family room, for two hours every day. No one was allowed to go near her or touch her without taking a bath, because the area in her vicinity was her sanctum sanctorum.
Every morning taking a bath was a chore because the water had to be heated in a copper boiler that had to be constantly fueled with charcoal and dry wood. The boiler was a two feet tall cylinder that had a hollow pipe in the center with a chimney-like opening at the top to drop fuel. The boiler would hold about two bucketfuls of water. Hot water was drained in a bucket by pouring cold water from a funnel like opening at the top. When the hot water was used up the next person had to wait until the cold water in the boiler got hot again. The hotness was determined by touching the boiler surface. The hot water was mixed in a bucket of cold water for the bath. We sat on a square stone platform, six inches above ground, and poured water over our heads with a small bowl. Some families were buying electric geysers for water heating but my dad never bothered. He was not the type to keep up with the Patels, as they might say.
While grandma was busy with her prayers, mom would be kneading the dough for the chapaties (flat bread), cutting vegetables, and cooking rice on a kerosene stove. She did all the cooking sitting on the floor. There was no counter top. We bought fresh vegetables every day, sometimes from the Mandai (outdoor market) or sometimes from a vendor who would come to our door with assorted vegetables in his push cart. No one had refrigerators. Going to the Mandai was a daily routine.
Most of us left for school around 9.30 in the morning. Everyone ate before leaving. We sat, as was the tradition, in front of our mom on a paat (a wooden platform about a foot wide and foot and half long standing on legs a couple of inches from the ground) and ate out of the taat (round metal plate). It was not customary to eat at a table, although some very rich families were practicing it.
Mom would also supervise Yellamma, the lady servant, who came early every morning, to clean the pots and vessels left over from the previous night and also to sweep the floors in the house with a jute broom. In between this hustle and bustle my dad would invariably get a visitor to just chit chat. More tea had to be made for him. Perhaps this multitasking made my mom rant and rave and complain about one thing or other.
With so many children, someone would invariably be sick and my dad had to take him/her to the doctor, my grandma’s brother, Gopal Mama. He had a dispensary in the front hall of his house in Sultan Bazar. There used to be an average of at least ten patients waiting to be examined by him. Because we were family, he would see my dad last to be fair to other patients and also because he did not charge dad for his service. On those days dad went late to his office.
In lighter moments on weekends, when we sat around in our family room, mom told us her stories, which were funny but invariably sad and always involved some mishap. There was a time when in Bombay she was left on the local train platform by herself when everyone boarded the crowded train in a rush and forgot to look after her. A young lady took pity on her and stayed with her until someone returned to fetch her. Another time the end of her Sari got entangled in the spokes of a rickshaw wheel and the driver did not notice. She would laugh nervously after telling her stories to indicate that it was not her fault but her fate. Later when she and dad visited me in US, I learned that she wrote poems about God and also played harmonium.
Mom complained about dad many a times. He sometimes disappeared for a couple of days, without telling anyone, especially on weekends. Without a telephone in the house it was difficult to know where he was and when he would be back. Later, we learned that he used to visit his friend, Lal Mohan. They had food, alcoholic drinks and, card games – sort of boy’s night out. I was too young to know, but from what I heard Lal Mohan was not a desirable person to be friends with. Nobody knew what business he was in. He and friends like Bhoj Raj were sweet talkers and cajoled my dad in loaning them money that they never paid back or were slow to pay back. Dad would not demand.
On the other hand dad and mom never ventured out socially as a couple anywhere except to attend official functions like weddings.
“Bhao Rao,” Usha Mami, would say. “Why don’t you and Indu Tai go to a movie together once in a while, or just go to the Mandai to buy vegetables. Just go somewhere, by yourselves, just the two of you.”
That never happened.
In those days there were no credit cards. So we would buy groceries and goods from the grocer around the block, Laxminarayan. He had a one room general store stocked with grains, toiletries and sundry items. He maintained a paper notebook on my dad’s name and wrote down everything that we bought from him. Nobody checked. Dad paid him partial amount every month without checking or tallying. Once bought, dad never returned anything even if it was defective. Later when he went to Dresden, Germany, as an exchange scientist I took upon the responsibility to manage the book. I told everyone in the house not to buy unnecessary things. I perused the notebook at month end to see if things were really bought and I tallied the total.
“Young Babu is smart.” Laxminarayan would say to mom.
My first steps in planning to go to America were exploratory. I visited the United States Information Service (USIS) library on Abids Road. It had catalogs from various American universities. A perusal of these catalogues indicated that most universities in the northern, eastern and western United States were expensive. I considered New York University and the Universities of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Montana, Kansas and Oklahoma. I wrote letters to the admissions offices and got the new catalogs and enrollment packages. The pictures of the university campus buildings, the facilities and the students shown in these catalogs appeared very attractive.
Students applying for admission to United States colleges had to demonstrate proficiency in English by going through an evaluation process at the USIS. This required me to write a brief essay on why I wanted to go to the US. I had participated in essay writing competitions in high school and college and had won some awards. In addition I had read From Log cabin to the White House, a biography of President Lincoln,and was familiar with Lincoln’s Gettysburg address that began with the sentence- Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. I wrote an essay stating how I envisioned a better opportunity in America, a land where President Lincoln had said that all people were created equal and so forth and how I could fulfill my dream through hard work. I passed the test.
My dad’s colleague, Dr. Bhoj Raj Naidu’s brother Dr, Venkat Rao had just returned from studies at Kansas State University. Dr. Venkat Rao was a veterinary doctor. I went over to talk to him to get a firsthand account of life in the US and to find out the possibilities of finding part-time jobs while studying.
“Students have a collegial relationship with professors in US,” he said. “Especially at graduate school level, they may even call the professors by their first name.” He warned, however, that this does not result in an evaluation from the professors any more favorable than what you are worth”. This was news to me. In India one always addressed professors with a prefix of a Mr. or a Dr. No one called them with their first name.
Dr. Venkat Rao said that the students in US are willing to work at menial jobs such as washing cars, working in cafeterias as bus boys, or working in libraries to stock shelves. They will do anything to earn a dollar, he said, adding that there was dignity in hard labor.
“You should be prepared to work at odd jobs you are not familiar with,” he concluded.
I thanked him for his advice and information. I left thinking there was hope so long as I was prepared to do whatever was needed without any inhibition.
In early 1962, Surendra left Hyderabad on an airplane out of the Begumpet Airport. I took a bus to the airport to see him off. He did not have time to talk with me. He had a garland around his neck and was surrounded by hordes of relatives. It is an Indian tradition to place a garland around the neck of a person as a mark of honor and respect. I had to wave at him from a distance. He had told me earlier that his travel arrangements were made by the Trade Wings agency and had given me the name of his reliable agent, Mallik.
I learned from Mallik that travel by ship, train and bus was going to be the cheapest way to the US. I was earning Rupees 250 (US $50) a month. It was possible for me to save enough, about $500, in a year for the journey, because I was living at home.
When it appeared that I would get admission to the University of Oklahoma, I faced the problem of paying for the tuition. I approached my aunt, Baby Maushi, which meant little aunt, for consultation. Her nick name did not mean that she was physically small but only that she was the youngest of the children in my mom’s family before the birth of other siblings. She was a high school teacher. Sometimes I felt she was a universal mom for all children, including her students. Her students came to her for advice, even for problems of a personal nature. She talked with them like they were her own children forming an immediate bond. She had taken a liking for me from my birth. So much so, that she called me her Dattak (adopted) son.
Baby Maushi was active in an activist organization called Hindu Mahasabha. That is where she met a young attorney, Madhav Rao, whom she married. It was a love marriage, meaning it was not arranged by their parents. There were stories that Madhav Rao took part in street demonstrations in Hyderabad during India’s independence struggle and faced strikes from police batons and jail time. They had moved to Bombay, where Baby Maushi was to become the superintendent of the school district, years later. Madhav Rao was an associate of Mr. Phool Chand Gandhi, also an attorney and an ex minister in the Hyderabad Government. Mr. Gandhi was a legal counsel to the billionaire industrialists Lalchand Hirachand, who had an educational trust to give loans to students.
When I presented my problem to Baby Maushi, Madhav Rao said what he always said: “We will see what we can do.”
He asked me to apply for the Lalchand Hirachand loan scholarship and keep my fingers crossed. A few days after my application, I was interviewed by Mr. Gandhi, who was very polite and asked me a few questions about my plan. I was lucky I received a scholarship for Rs. 3000 (approximately $600), enough for the first semester’s tuition and expenses, to be paid back upon my graduation. I registered for the 1963 spring semester.
At the same time dad told us the good news that he was selected by the RRL to go to Dresden, Germany, for one year as an exchange scientist. The bad news was that he was not going to be present to see me off. We both needed clothes for our foreign trips, so he took me to the B. N. Das Tailors in Sultan Bazaar. We selected a grey pin stripe cloth for a three piece suit and a dark brown thick woolen cloth for a winter overcoat for me. I had my first custom-made suit.
My journey to the United States was still not definite. I needed to go to Bombay to obtain visas for all the countries en route – Italy, France and Britain.
My coworkers from the office came to the Nampally station to see me off. They put a garland of marigold flowers around my neck as I stood at the door of the train compartment.
Entrance to the Nampally Railroad Station
“Come back alone, Sir.” They said loudly, hinting that I should not emulate people who had visited other countries and married foreign girls.
I promised I would.
I stood and waved to them as the train pulled away from the platform, bringing my hand down when I could not see them anymore.
To read chapter 3 click here Chapter 3