Category Archives: Transplanted

Transplanted, from 110 degrees in the shade, to 10 degrees in the sun


Chapter Six

The Things I carried

The things I carried when I came to this country were dictated partly by the rituals of my Hindu heritage. In my luggage I had a solid silver oil lamp, eight inches tall, which took five wicks and had the capacity to hold one ounce of oil, enough to burn a single wick for about one hour. My Hindu custom required that the prayers be offered in front of an oil lamp. But once I started residency in Pathology, the daily routine of prayers lasted less than fifteen minutes at the lamp. That was all I could spare in any twenty-four hours. The lamp kept burning for a much longer time.
At twenty-three, when I came to the United States from South India, I tried to be pragmatic about what I brought with me, but sentiments over-ruled pragmatism with more than one item I included in my luggage.
I chose a brown leather suitcase instead of a metal trunk to make the most of the weight restrictions of what I could carry on the plane.
I brought with me a jar of coconut oil, boiled and cooled with black peppercorns, to maintain the gloss in my hair. Ammachi, my maternal aunt, made me promise that I would prepare more of it when that jar was empty. One of my most cherished childhood memories was of “Oil bath Sundays.” We ran and played in our courtyard shiny and half naked, with warm oil rubbed lovingly all over our bodies, by our mother or aunt. The smell of the black peppers in that oil is still with me.
Of course I needed a unique steaming pot to make Idlis. Idlis are steamed rice cakes, for which the batter takes over one hour to grind the urad lentil and rice grain (at the ratio of 1:3), twenty-four hours to let the batter rise, and twenty minutes to cook. The pot has two special trays atop a water section, and a domed lid to trap the steam. Once cooked it takes barely one minute to down an idli, smothered with butter and sugar, they are so devilishly delightful. Idlis are breakfast food where I come from. With little time for sit-down breakfasts, I made them for supper on Monday nights. Only vegetarian fare was served at my table on Mondays, the day I observed the Shiva Vratham, a fast in honor of Lord Shiva, for the health and happiness of my husband. If the head of the household stayed healthy and happy, the rest of the family would be happy too.
Also included was a chattukam, a metal spatula, thinnest ever, to turn over dosas, pancakes made without eggs or leavening, and ones that will stick to the griddle, unless extra care is taken in handling them. Just as with some people who will crack if not handled with care. Why are all references to food akin to references to what we are made of? Maybe the food makes the man, or does the food we eat reflect the man in us?
I carried a dog-eared cookbook in Malayalam, my native language. It belonged to Ammachi, my maternal aunt who raised me. She depended on the book for her culinary efforts, which were at best sporadic and not highly regarded even by herself, but what little she did was based on this little book of authentic South Indian, Kerala cooking. Unadulterated by any north Indian recipes, she felt I needed it, her ultimate sacrifice for my future. I guard it from wind, rain, oil splatters and fire, and will pass it on to the next generations, even though they cannot read it.
Besides the white sarees and blouses to be worn at the hospital, I packed a dozen baadis, special bras that I wore. A baadi is a short chemise tied up in a knot in front, thus flattening one’s figure and masking any curves, an effort at modesty, in those times. I thought it quite contradictory that while we took pride in the feminine spirit, and in having sensuous bodies, adorned them in gold and silver, there existed traditional efforts at covering up and hiding aspects of sexuality. To play tennis, I had to wear salwar-kammeez outfits, long pygama-pants worn with long loose-fitting shirts, and a shawl draped across the chest. Wasted efforts at modesty, as I look back. But then my ammoomma’s, grandmother’s, word was dictum, and I obeyed. Still, my ammoomma allowed short choli blouses with our sarees that left our midriff bare. Not that I complained.
The baadis were replaced by regular bras, when I had to go to the hospital here in the States for the delivery of our first-born. It was too embarrassing for my husband that in 1964 I still wore undergarments from the Stone Ages.
The baggage of superstitions I bore would stifle an army. While many were self-assuring, others, if I allowed them to, could have destroyed me.
I carried the firm belief that touching my husband’s feet in respect first thing in the morning was equivalent to honoring God, who is within each of us, for he is the first image of God that I saw when I woke up. I did that, and felt blessed that I had a loved one that I could so honor.
The sense of optimism imbued in me assured me that as an agent of God I could do what is right and honorable even in dishonorable situations. I held a conviction that while one should compromise at times of conflicts, one need not jeopardize one’s principles. As wise as I was for my age of twenty three, the conflicts remained, and as the Western life molded me, many such beliefs came in handy for survival.
I came with the confidence that I could do good to many people. When my efforts were fruitful, I thanked God. When my efforts didn’t work out, I laid them at God’s feet and accepted failure, praying for strength to bear the disappointment.
In my brown leather suitcase I carried an ivory figure of Lord Krishna. It must be very old. My mother’s uncle carried it with him to Burma during World War II, and when he returned, he placed it on a shelf in his drug store, the one my ammoomma, his sister, bought for him. It was the corner drugstore by my house across the street from the Government Hospital for Women and Children. I hung out there as a youngster. When I was old enough he let me wash the mortars and pestles, after he used them. At dusk, our time of daily prayers, I was allowed to light an oil lamp in front of this ivory Krishna. By all standards the store should have prospered. But for reasons unknown to me, the store closed when I was twelve. When he packed up his things, I stood there sadly, not knowing what to say. As he took the statue off the shelf, he handed it to me. Standing three inches tall, the smiling face of Krishna seemed to say ‘take me’, so I took it. It came with me to my medical college hostel, and included it in the things I carried here. My great uncle has since passed away. I remember him with love.
The Bhagavad Geetha is the book of advice that Lord Krishna gave to the young prince Arjuna in the great Epic Mahabharatha, when Arjuna falters in his resolve to fight his evil cousins. I was raised reading and learning the Lord’s advice and so, I included a Bhagavad Geetha book among the things I carried.
There was not enough room to bring idols of all deities I prayed to. So, I took with me a statue of Lord Shiva the destroyer, in a dancing pose with his energy emanating in a ring of flames, to me a symbol of his destroying any bad vibes in my life. I still have it in my pooja room, prayer room.
And then there was the pink purse in a floral design with sparkling thread woven on the top, a birthday gift from my husband Raj, three years before we married. A turbulent time in our lives, his father opposed our relationship, and placed undue pressure on Raj while he was struggling to keep up with his studies in Medical School. That year, on my birthday, Raj decided that he was not going to celebrate with me. His closest friend and confidante, T.K. Rajan, thought he was wrong. So, Rajan himself went to town, bought a purse for Raj to gift me, and arranged for us to meet at The Canteen, the café on the college campus, our usual hangout. Rajan then coerced Raj to give me my birthday present. How could I not bring that with me, as I traveled 10,000 miles away from home? I still have the purse.
I had a reel-tape of Malayalam songs made for us to listen in our new abode, so far away. On the day we recorded the songs, Daddy said a few words of greetings to my husband who was already in the States. Thus I have my dad’s voice with me forever. He passed away seven years later. I did not know then that I would never see him again. I wish I had more of his voice to listen to.
Also included were a necklace and two bangles made of 22Karat gold with ruby-red finial stones set in a unique design, which my ammoomma gave as part of my wedding jewelry. The rest of my jewelry had to be left behind because I was traveling alone and also because Raj and I were planning to return to India after four years of residency training. Back then there was no intention of staying in the States forever.
My album of photographs included pictures of Dad and Mom before they gave up three-piece suits and gold lace saris for clothes sewn from the rough khadi cloth, which was hand woven cotton, made in India with pride. It symbolized the principle touted by Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of our Nation, who as part of the anti- British protest shunned all items bearing any western influence. Khadi making was one small industry established by the Ghandian movement, enabling the peasant folk to make a living with a sense of pride.
There are pictures in this album of me at six months of age, butt naked lying on my tummy wearing only a toothless smile. There is a similar baby picture of my future husband as well. A series of pictures taken at my husband’s home, long before we got married, when we were still in our teens, alongside our siblings, graced the pages. As family friends, we had periodic get-togethers, and my dad being a photographer, imprinted many such visits in celluloid.
I am glad that I included photographs of my childhood chums, of my friends and me at various musical and drama functions in junior college and medical college, and wedding portraits of my sister at age fifteen, and my aunt at twenty-eight. I still carry the album; one of the most precious items that I possess.
My husband came to Chicago in June, 1963, and I followed him seven months later. While I pined for him in the interim, I drove my family crazy. My mother suggested that I knit a sweater for him. So I did, using gray wool in a cable and purl pattern. I made a scarf to match. He said he loved them and wore them a few times. But once we could afford smoother, less patterned sweaters, it was placed in the back of the closet. It served its purpose when I needed an activity to keep me sane.
The things I carried then served their purpose in my life transition to this land. They anchor me in times of turbulence. My relationship to them still contributes to my sanity and survival.
March 2013


Transplanted, from 110 degrees in the shade to 10 degrees in the sun


Chapter Five

A Bundle of Joy.

In March I found out I was with child.

We were elated.

I grew up the oldest in my generation in my mother’s family, with the privileged status of being the ‘first granddaughter’ of Dr.Chellamma and the ‘first daughter’ of the famous Photographer Sivaraam.
Balu Chettan was the oldest of ten, and being first-born-son, was denied nothing until he coveted me against his father’s wishes, when we were both medical students. The untimely demise of his father, the year Balu Chettan graduated from medical school, had changed everything between him and his mother. His status as her favorite son was re-established in his mother’s eyes. He was her sole source of financial support. He assumed the role as the head of the household, one that carried nine siblings of whom only one was married and on her own.

So, here we were bringing forth a child who would inherit all the crown and glory of a worthy descendant of two first-borns.

The two of us laughed and cried and celebrated the event.

We could not go out to eat, because there were no restaurants that catered to my cravings. We could not hide our happy news from any of our friends; we were glowing all the time, and I was throwing up every time I smelled meat cooking.

There was no immediate family to celebrate with, so our friends celebrated with us. When I cooked a meal, each and every one of the guys, who had never washed a plate or cup before they came over from India, gladly scrubbed my pots and pans and even cleared the table and put away my placemats. Then we sat and talked about our childhood back home and how their mothers reacted to their pregnancies. For, among the seven of us that gathered the only other one who had married was Dr. John, and he had a wife and child , but they were still back home awaiting their visa to come over to the USA.

Balu Chettan and I sang the songs about first-borns and new-borns we had learned from Malayalam movies.

‘Adyathe kanamani aanayirikkenan, avan achane pole irikkenunum’
The first born has to be a boy, and he has to look like his father.
We sang…
“adyathe kanmani pennayirikkenum, aarume kandal kothikkananum; aval ammaye pole chirikkanam”
The first born has to be a girl, and anyone who sees her has to covet her; she should smile like her mother.”

We sang the songs, we laughed, and then I would burst out into tears. “I want my Mommy.” I would say between sobs.

I missed my mother the most, now when I was being blessed with child. What could I do? It was too far to go. We had too many commitments to just quit and leave, and besides, we just plain could not afford to return even for a visit.

My sleep patterns were all goofed up and dreams interrupted my sleep.
I still remember the time that I woke up in the middle of the night, and screamed. ”I want to see Kannan, now!”
Kannan, was our nephew, and the littlest member of our family that we had left behind. The year after we were married, Kannan’s mother Ambika had another baby, and hence I had taken care of baby Kannan many a time.

The fact that I was carrying my child brought the homesickness and in addition to yearning for my own mother, I missed the one child to whom I had been close. The fact that no one here would pamper me the way the mothers-to-be were pampered back home hit me hard. A mother-to-be would get her favorite foods brought to her not only by her mother and mother-in-law, but also by her aunts and close family friends. Even my Dad would have stopped by Xavier’s Restaurant in town for my favorite vanilla icecream. And the special oil bath! Especially a first time pregnant woman would have aromatic oils rubbed on her at least once a week before her bath by the help in the kitchen or a special lady that came to help.

My emotional state made an impact on Balu Chettan. The next evening he offered to get me tickets to return home for a short visit. I did not accept his offer.

Even though I was in a tizzy due to my ‘hormonal’ ups and downs, I knew that my returning alone even for a visit was not a simple affair. I think Balu Chettan’s offer to give me a visit home was all I needed to hear, because, after that I settled down and went about my business without further upset.

Thinking back, as young as I was, Balu Chettan handled our emotions so well, I am still impressed by it. He was not much older than me either. He was only twenty-five years old at the time.

Yet another problem arose.

Before my arrival, Balu chettan had arranged for a two week vacation for us to California and back, driving all the way with three friends, Radahakrishnan, Eipe, and Rajasekharan. Because their first year stint was ending in June, the four friends were eligible to their annual days off. However, I just started my first year training in February and was not eligible for my annual vacation. I don’t know how Balu Chettan managed to arrange my vacation to coincide with theirs even before I had started working at that hospital. I believe Dr. Kent, the Chief of Pathology and my future boss, felt sorry for the pining look in Balu Chettan’s eyes when he explained the request for my early holiday. Anyway, he granted my days off so that I too made the cross country adventure to see the ‘West’ all the way to California and back.

Balu Chettan also recruited the help of Mrs. Florence Hruso, the secretary for the Director of Medical Education at MacNeal Memorial Hospital, and prepared an itinerary for our trip.
Part of the urgency of such a trip was due to the fact all of us had training Visas that automatically limited the length of our stay in this States. We were determined to see as much of this country as possible.

The copies of our ambitious itinerary are added here. This shows how driven we were, and how unrealistic. Our youth and inexperience revealed!

California Vacation, 1964,pg.1

California Vacation, 1964, pg 2

California Vacation, 1964, pg 3

My morning sickness lasted all day and well into the evenings.

Balu Chettan was quite upset, and of course we did not want to cancel the trip. Radhakrishnan and Eipe gathered half a dozen IV sets and nutrient bottles to carry with us so I could be fed intravenously should we run into major health problem due to my throwing up along the way.

We set out in the middle of May, taking Route 66 for the most part. The days were spent seeing such marvels as the Meramac Caverns, ‘Air conditioned by Mother Nature,’ as the marquee proclaimed. Radhkrishnan wished to spend at least two nights in the Casinos at Las Vegas. In order to have enough time and a little extra money to spend there, we had decided to drive through the night. The four men, acting more like boys, took turns sleeping during the day, and I too slept when I could. I did not know how to drive a car. So, it was my turn to keep the night-driver company, talking and singing songs and telling stories about our parents and siblings.

We did make it to Las Vegas with plenty of time to spend any money we could spare. We reached the town at dusk, and as we drove through the Strip, the night lights came on. I said in awe. “Wonder how many light bulbs are used on this street alone. They must be using more electricity to light up this street than is used for the entire Trivandrum town.” I have not heard the end of that quote of mine in all the years that followed.

The town I had left just four months previously had bright street lights in the main street, but dim corner lights even in the shopping areas and market-place. At home, we always turned off the lights as we left one room, and only used reading lights at the tables where we worked. No unoccupied room was left with lights on.

In New Mexico, hedge-rows of oleanders touted masses of pink and white flowers and Balu Chettan had me pose for pictures beside them.

I closed my eyes and was carried back to my ammoomma’s front yard. There, the aralis, as we called the oleanders, welcomed the caterpillars that metamorphosed into shiny dumbbell shaped cocoons,pupa, which hung precariously from the tip of their dark, long leaves. As kids we were allowed to pick some and place them in a shoe box with holes in the lid. We awaited impatiently until they released the butterflies in due time. The arali leaves were poisonous to their predators, but not to the caterpillars that feasted on them before their sojourn into pupas within their cocoons and on to the butterfly stage. It taught me early in life that some things that are good for someone else may not be good for me.

Through marriages and childbirths, and despite some dry years, and despite illnesses, divorce, and retirements and a bit of moving around the country, this band of travelers along with most of our families have stayed in touch, and those two weeks on the road in 1964 created a bond for the few of us whose hearts were pining for our own siblings we had left behind.

* * * *

On July 2nd, 1964, I noted in my diary that ‘the little one moved within me for the first time.” With the very first movement I knew it was the real thing. Not just a muscle twitch. Not just my imagination. I knew the little one was letting me know of her presence, and was demanding that I take good care of me so the care would be passed on to her. Of course I did not know then it was a girl. The movement within me was a reminder to take my vitamins and my calcium pills and to drink milk every day, even if I lost some of it with my persistent morning sickness, which happened all through the day.
At the end of the pregnancy, I had only gained nineteen pounds. I felt great. I worked until the day I had labor pains and went to the hospital.

A little after midnight, in the early hours of December 12th, 1964, I felt the pain in my abdomen that heralded my little one’s arrival. The pains came infrequently through the night. At nine thirty on Saturday morning I walked over to the hospital, registered at the office, and got myself admitted to the OB department in anticipation of my first childbirth.

At 11.22 P.M. almost 24 hours later, a beautiful little girl was born to us. The sight of her small face framed with dark, thick, even wavy hair made me laugh and cry at the same time. For her first official portrait, the nurse placed a pink ribbon on her hair, but had pin back the hair off her face, so her eyes would show in her photo.

How is it that the distress that lasted almost a whole day was forgotten the minute the baby was placed in my hands? It could not be just denial, because I knew the pain was real when it happened. But the tiny fingers curling around my own, so much stronger than I ever imagined, somehow send signals to my brain to erase the agony of just moments ago. As her eyes met mine the ecstasy I felt raised me to a higher plane, replacing the anxiety over the many hours of labor and possibility of a C-section that you had heard them talk about in the distant corners of the labor room.

Balu Chettan hugged us both, and I cried again. This time I cried because the miracle we created together had finally arrived.

We named her Devi, meaning ‘goddess.’ With such an auspicious name we were wishing her a great life.

Balu Chettan called home and gave our families the good news. I could not talk to my mother or grandmother because the baby and I stayed at the hospital for the next five days. I learned I could be lonely even in the midst of friends who visited me. Strangers stopped in my room to see the mother of the ‘baby with so much hair.’

My loneliness turned to tears all the time and my constant agitation because I could not have the baby with me all the time. Devi was brought to me for feedings, and the nurses frowned on my unwrapping the bundled up infant so I could inspect the tiny toes and fingers and admire the little miracle.
Back home a newborn would wear a cut out muslin top, and would be lying next to the mother, on a mat with a soft cloth for a sheet, and in those days there were no diapers used either. The adults stood around and commented on how agile the baby is when he/she would kick and scream. There were no scheduled feeding times- the baby would get fed anytime it screamed in hunger.

My loneliness and frustration increased. I wanted my mother and aunt to take care of me. Not the strangers in this strange land where a mother was denied a chance to see her newborn naked.
My friend Padma brought me our brand of comfort food- rice and yogurt and lime pickle. It still was not enough.

Then, on the fourth day Balu Chettan brought me a pound of butterscotch candy. For some reason my blues vanished as I shared the sweets with the nurses and my visitors.

I had suffered from post-partum depression, fortunately of a very mild degree.
To this day, our first born Devi has a very special place in the hearts of the remarkable friends who were more than family in our lives, and were the very first uncles and aunts who helped us raise her as an infant.

TRANSPLANTED, From 110 degrees in the shade to 10 degrees in the Sun


Chapter four                                           First day at work

It was cold. Very very cold. I thought I came prepared to face a cold Chicago winter. When I exited our warm, cozy apartment in Berwyn to travel to the town of Oak Park, where I was to start my first day of work, the bitter cold that assaulted me was nothing that I could have expected.

I know since then that all new experiences are relative to what we have encountered in the past. But, being transplanted from Trivandrum, South India, where it is 110 degrees in the shade, to Berwyn, Illinois, at 10 degrees in the Sun, I was shocked. Despite my warm woolen pajama pants under my white silk saree, and sweater inside my winter coat, I shivered until the car heater kicked in.

When we reached West Suburban Hospital in Oak Park, two friends who worked there, doctors Radhakrishnan and Bose met me at the lobby. Balu Chettan returned to his hospital in Berwyn and his Rotating Internship. Dr. Bose said hello, and rushed off to attend patient rounds with his attending Physician.

The lobby in this hospital was totally different from anything I had seen in India. Upholstered chairs, glass top tables, handsome hanging lamps and lovely lampshades were a far cry from the bare bulbs which hung in many of our hospital corridors back home. Even in the private rooms for our more affluent patients, the chairs were bare backs and just minimum cushions softening the seats.

“Shaku,” Radhakrishnan interrupted my thoughts, “I will take you to the Pathology department on the 9th floor. Dr. Kent, the Chief of Pathology is expecting you.”

I nodded my head and followed him to the elevators. When we reached the 9th floor, I followed him past the histology laboratory, which I recognized from the smell of formalin and alcohol wafting out the doors. I saw two curious heads peeking out the large double doors and I was struck by the golden blonde hair atop one. I knew an occasional blonde girl among the members of the United States Information Library in Trivandrum, where I spend one Saturday a month participating in cultural programs and checking out books, while I was in middle school and high school. The type of stark gold blonde hair I saw was a total surprise.

We walked past the Histology laboratory and another large room with a plaque on the door which declared “Microbiology,” and on to the room at the very far end of the corridor.  Radhakrishnan knocked on the door, and waited for the ‘come in,” response from within before we walked in.

I was introduced to Dr. Geoffrey Kent. Dressed in a tailored suit, he looked professorial behind his desk, a wooden desk that took up more than half the floor space of a not-too large room, and at one end of the table sat a microscope. Trays of glass slides, which I knew were samples of tissue processed for diagnoses under the microscope, were piled haphazardly to the left of the microscope. Piles of printed paper, with hand written notes all over them and a few books crowded the rest of the desk. One wide window was to the left of the door we entered from, and on the opposite wall I saw another door, partly open. On the wall to my right, two bookshelves were filled with books that brimmed over to the carpeted floor. This was a typical professor’s room, and I felt quite at home.

Dr. Kent rose from his desk, came around the table, and I had to look up to meet his smiling eyes. An English gentleman, I noticed, as his eyes narrowed and his freckled face crinkled around his eyes when he smiled. He seemed a good twelve inches taller than me.

“So you are–,” and he purposely drew out the pronunciation of my name, “Dr. Sha-kun-tala Raja-gopal.”  He shook my hands, taking my right hand in both of his, and kept talking.  “You realize I cannot call you by this whole long name.  It would take too long.  What do your friends call you?”

I was by no means a timid girl by any standards where I came from, but I felt a tad shy and slightly intimidated by his height and his huge hands.

“Shaku.” I replied.

“So, Shaku it will be.”  He stated firmly.

He led our way out of the room, onto a corridor which led to a few other rooms. Radhakrishnan said ‘bye to me. “Page me when you are ready for lunch.” He said as he walked back to the elevator.

Passing one or two doors, Dr. Kent turned left into a long narrow room with three desks on each wall, many carrying microscopes.  At one desk a lovely white lady with soft brown hair, combed and coiffed in a flattering way, sat peering into a microscope.  She turned, smiled and got up to greet me.  I guessed she was about thirty years.  Dr. Kent spoke.  “This is Eleanor, our Cytologist.”  Then he turned to look around, and asked, “Where is Dr. Bruce?”  He asked this of Eleanor even before he told her my name.  (That must be someone important; Dr. Bruce, I said to myself.)

“Clara is not here yet.”  Eleanor replied.

“This is our new Resident, Dr. Shaku” Dr. Kent spoke as he looked from her to me and back.  “She says she is a doctor.”  He leaned towards Eleanor and whispered, but loud enough for me to hear, “I think she is too young to be one.  I am sure she is fibbing.”  Then he laughed, very pleased at himself at his own joke.

His laugh put me at ease.

Right then the sounds of the elevator door opening not too far from us and the arrival of two people deep in conversation, a woman’s voice loud and fast, and the other a man’s, speaking softly, slowly, and deliberately, caught my attention.

At the door of the room we were in, they stopped, finished whatever they were discussing, and the woman entered the room.  Tall, with a light brown complexion, she looked bossy.

“Dr. Clara Bruce, meet Dr. Shakuntala Rajagopal.”  Dr. Kent introduced us.  As we shook hands he continued, ‘we will call her Dr. Shaku. O.K. Clara?”

With that he turned around and returned to his room.

“So, you are Dr. Rajagopal.” Dr. Bruce sat down at the far end of the windowless room, at which I presumed was her desk and microscope.

She pointed towards the desk right behind the one Eleanor was still standing by, and motioned me to sit down. So, I did. As soon as I sat down, Eleanor moved closer to me and said in a very pleasant voice. “We were wondering what we were going to call you. I am relieved you have a short name for us. Your microscope will need adjusting to your small frame.” She continued.

She turned off the light on her microscope, closed the slide tray she was using, and took my hand in hers. “I am the Cytotechnologist here.  It is time for my coffee break, so I will take you to the Clinical laboratory and Blood Bank on the fourth floor. The Lab Manager Felicia has her office there, and you need to get your lab coat, etc. Let us go.”

As she unlocked her desk drawer and picked up her purse, I looked around and took stock of the room that was to be my home away from home for the next four years. I wondered who else would be using the space.

It was a good thing I did not know about ‘jet lag.’  Maybe I was too young and naïve to think beyond life as anything other than the open book before me, where at that point in time I was meant to learn and absorb all I needed in order to become an excellent Pathologist.

Looking back, the mentors, even the bossy ones, the fellow struggling residents, the dedicated technologists, the lovely ladies in the kitchen and the wise physician friends on the staff at that hospital, all helped form my character and confidence that has sustained me all these years.  This was my first adopted family home.

TRANSPLANTED From 110 degrees in the shade to 10 degrees in the Sun


Chapter Three           My New Home  

The plane landed in Chicago after midnight. Our friends, doctors John, Eipe, Radhakrishnan and Rajasekharan met us at Chicago O’Hare airport and drove us to our apartment in Berwyn. I knew the street address on Kenilworth Avenue by heart, because I had addressed umpteen envelopes carrying pages and pages of my love and my tears and my hopes to my husband for the past seven months.

If first impressions count, I should have turned tail and taken the next flight back to where I came from. The blast of Winter air hit me as I walked out of the Airport. Balu Chettan, (Raj,) had warned me in his letters how cold it was, and I did wear woolen pajamas under my saree, and a warm woolen sweater. Still, arriving from Trivandrum, where it was 90° F when I left, it took my breath away.

He quickly got me into the car and Eipe turned on the heat. As we got on the road, the vision of countless cars traveling at an immeasurable speed on what appeared to be long ribbons curving into the dark night, which I was told were ‘highways,’ and the lines of white head-lights coming toward us, while lines of red tail-lights went in the direction in which we were headed, was confusing. To my simple question as to how fast we were going, I was told, “50 to 60 miles per hour.”

Having left my hometown roads just seventy-two hours earlier, where the fastest a car went was 30 mph, and slowed down or even stopped for horse drawn carriages sharing the same roads, the traffic that I saw, in the middle of the night, was unbelievable and scary.

Once in our apartment, I shared all the news from our hometown, Trivandrum, with the friends. I unpacked my suitcase and distributed the items I had brought for them from their families.

I handed John the baby pictures of his firstborn, the baby he had not seen yet. John had left for Chicago in December 1963, and his son Bobby was born in January 1964. Special banana chips from Eipe’s mother, which he immediately opened and shared with us. As I opened the bag of curry powder, homemade in my mother’s kitchen, I remembered Balu Chettan had said in his letters how they missed our food and was waiting for me to arrive and make an authentic and tasty Chicken curry. I invited them all for dinner on Sunday. It was 2.30 A.M on Friday.

We still sat reminiscing, when the phone rang. Another friend, Dr. Thomas Bose, called to say that his barber had given him such a bad haircut that morning, he did not want to shock me in the middle of the night; that is the reason he did not come with the others to meet me at the airport. Because I was to start my Residency the next day at the same hospital where he worked, he promised to see me there.

I walked around to see what the apartment looked like, since this was to be my home for the next year or two.

There was one spacious room with a large couch set against a wall, and a window on the opposite wall with pale yellow see-through curtains, open to the darkness of the night.  Off to the right of this room I entered a small dining area with a wooden table and two chairs leading into a kitchen with a refrigerator, stove, and kitchen sink. When I opened the refrigerator for a can of Pepsi, my back touched the side of the sink. It was the smallest kitchen I had ever seen.

The kitchen in my Ammoomma’s house had wood-burning stoves which held pots large enough to cook rice for ten to twelve people each meal. The outside sink, where cooking pots were washed was at least three times the size of the kitchen sink I was faced with. This little kitchen in Berwyn was where I would cook entire meals for the first time in my life. I knew how to make idlis, steamed rice cakes, and I knew how to make my favorite deserts. Knowing I would be ‘keeping house’ when I came here, I did work with the cook back home to prepare some curries and some vegetable dishes, unique to our part of India. However, I had never in my life cooked an entire meal for five people, let alone for the two of us. I took a deep breath and said to myself, “I have to start somewhere. Might as well be here.”

Returning to the main room, I passed the group of friends and on to a dressing area with built-in cabinets and drawers for clothes. This led into the bathroom. Although small, the sink, bathtub and bathroom were clean, and the white towels spotless. This was encouraging.

Where is our bed?  Where is our bedroom?  I racked my brain and failed to come up with the possibility for a space for the bed. Where has Balu Chettan been sleeping?  I did not dare ask him in front of the four other friends. Knowing we had parted as newly-weds just months ago, and knowing this was our first reunion; any question of a missing bed would bring an onslaught of ridicule. I was smart enough to hold my tongue. I could barely wait until they left, about 3:30 A.M.

“Where do we sleep?”  My question was answered with a burst of laughter, a hug and a kiss.

Balu Chettan took my hand and led me to the couch, yanked off the cushions, grabbed the seat up and out popped a full sized bed all made up with fresh white sheets. It was magic. Laughing uncontrollably, he brought out two pillows and a blanket from a cabinet and set out to make the bed.

I burst into tears. Balu Chettan pulled me close in a tight embrace. “Sorry Penné.” His soft tone soothed and comforted me. Penné, (girl,) was what he called me, his own special girl. I wiped my tears and kissed him, holding on for dear life.

My sobs had released the tension of departure from my own familiar home, and my arrival in a strange land. I sighed with relief that I didn’t have to sleep on the floor in my new apartment.

I had never seen a hide-away bed before.

January, 1964

TRANSPLANTED From 110 degrees in the shade to 10 degrees in the Sun


Chapter Two                      My First day in this country                  The New World

On January 30th, 1964, I landed in New York City, where the welcoming torch of the Statue of Liberty glistened in the evening light as my TWA flight descended from the skies.

My husband came to greet me, his bride of one year.  He flew in from Chicago the previous day and had stayed with his friend George, an intern at a State Hospital in Upper New York.  George was kind enough to bring him to the airport.  I walked out of the Customs area, approached my Balu Chettan, that is what I called Raj, and reached down and touched his feet, to honor him as my husband and my elder.  My greeting evoked laughter from Balu Chettan and George, because as two young modern physicians in America, they felt the custom was quite antiquated.  But not me.  Although many miles separated us from our motherland, my heart and my points of reference about everyday civilities of life remained the same as when I left, just two days previously.

We said goodbye to George, and went around to the airport restaurant where my husband bought us donuts and coffee.  With the donuts and coffee we walked to the boarding gate for the plane to Chicago.  My first bite of the donut surprised me with the sugary taste.  In Kerala, we make a salty snack called Vada, which has a central hole and is deep fried.  Although the donut resembled the Vada, the taste was entirely different without the usual onions green peppers and black peppercorns that are present in the Vada.  Despite the total difference from the Vada, I liked the donut.

Seated comfortably at the gate, we held hands and spoke of how we had missed each other, and filled in the news of how we had fared without each other in those long months apart.  Time passed quicker than we had imagined, and suddenly we realized we were the only ones left in the waiting area.

We stopped an airline crew member and inquired why they had not called for boarding.  We were told that all passengers had boarded, and that the aircraft was ready to take off.  We had missed the calls, totally engrossed in each other.  The doors were closed, and the accordion-ramp had been retracted.  We begged him to reopen the door for us to board.  He said his hands were tied.  We needed to get to Chicago, Balu Chettan had to report to duty at the hospital the next morning, and I too was scheduled to start a new job the next morning.  Seeing my tears and the despair in our eyes, he was kind enough to have an airport officer telephone into the plane, and have the crew reopen the door, which had been locked already.  They had to recall the staff to roll the ramp back, so that we could enter the plane.  I am sure the other passengers got a big kick out of a young red-faced couple scrambling to their seats.  As soon as we buckled our seat-belts the plane rolled off to take its place in line for takeoff to Chicago.

Thus we barely made the flight to Chicago that January night.  We were greatly relieved we did not miss the flight, or both of us would have needed to make excuses for being absent from work.  As fate would have it, I did start my Pathology Residency on time the next day.

Shakuntala Rajagopal

My Journey. Part 2 of 4part


My Journey   Part 2 of 4 parts

So, it was only natural that we packed the ashes from the Ganesha homam, a prayer ritual where pieces of coconuts with the shell on, various fruits and flowers, and ghee, clarified butter, were offered in a wood burning fire in front of Lord Ganesha.  While the blazing fire consumed the various offerings, we chanted special prayers to Lord Ganesha to propitiate him. He was the deity who removed all obstacles when one set out on a trip, took an exam or started a new endeavour.  Of course I needed his blessings for my new life in the States.

One week before I set out for Chicago, in January 1964, I did another prayer ritual of Ponkala, to please Goddess Lekshmi, the goddess of health, wealth and happiness.  This, I did at my Maami’s house.  I called my mother-in-law Maami, meaning Aunt in Malayalam, my native tongue.  After my marriage, my Maami’s house was also my home.  I had stayed on with her even after my husband had left for Chicago.

For the Ponkala prayer, I cooked rice in milk and water, in our front-yard, on a makeshift fireplace made up of three piles of bricks.  The distance between the three piles, each about five bricks high, was determined by the size of the glazed ceramic pot that I was using.  A fire was made in the center with dry coconut-palm-leaves and some firewood.  While the rice cooked, I chanted prayers to Goddess Lekshmi.  The blazing fire consumed any bad vibes or spirits that hovered over me.  In time, the wood-burning fire got doused by the milk and rice boiling over from the cooking pot.  Symbolically, even as my wishes boiled over, this was also a gesture of food offering to the Bhoomi Devi, Goddess Earth.  The bonus was that I collected double blessings from the Goddesses, Lekshmi Devi and Bhoomi Devi, to carry with me over the oceans that I had to cross on my trip to Chicago.

We Hindus know that there is but one God, but each time the Lord appears on earth to help the ‘good’ triumph over ‘evil,’ the form in which the Lord appeared is revered, temples are built in his or her name, and each deity blesses us to make different facets of a person strong.

Then came the goodbyes.  In the last week that I was home, I bid farewell to many uncles and aunts, cousins and second cousins of my parents, all with vested interest in my success in America.  I was the first one from our extended family to travel so far from home, especially to the new world.  I bent down and touched the feet of each family elder.  The act of touching the feet of an elder signifies a show of respect for the age, maturity and divinity in them, and at the same time it was to seek their blessing for my upcoming trip, but more so for my journey into a new life.  When you touch the feet of an elder person and then place the fingers in blessing to your own forehead, you are paying reverence to the God-power within that being, and evoking that power for your own benefit.  Each of them in turn placed both palms on my shoulders to confer their blessings on me.  Some smiled, and some cried, and one great-aunt, Thankamoni Maami, sobbed so hard, she could not complete her act of blessing me.

To voluntarily pay homage to another is to empower that God-power in both parties.  To be compelled to do so, if you were one of those who questioned this practice, would be ineffective, and unthinkable.

Part 3 to follow

Shakuntala Rajagopal

My Journey, Part 1of 4 parts


My journey

My journey of ten-thousand miles began with ten-thousand blessings.

In October 1963, I went on a pilgrimage with my mother and father to the temples they had frequented, throughout our state of Kerala in South India.  I was to gather the blessings of deities they believed in, before I set out on my journey nine weeks later, to join my new husband, in far away Chicago.

When you are 23 years old and the farthest you have gone alone in your life is a bus trip to the tennis club two and a half miles away, ten thousand miles from home is an awfully long way to go.

I could not go any farther from my home, anywhere on this earth, if I wanted to.  My hometown Trivandrum, India, and Chicago, Illinois are on the opposite sides of the earth.  If I bored a tunnel straight through from Trivandrum, I would land less than a half inch to the west and barely three inches due south of Chicago, according to my world globe.

Packing for my trip to Chicago, the very first items that my mother and I placed at the bottom of my suitcase were sachets of prasadams, blessed offerings of dried sandalwood paste, from the temple at Guruvayoor, dedicated to Lord Krishna.  This was one of the twelve temples we visited as part of my pilgrimage.  When my father, mother and I, along with my sister and her baby boy arrived at Guruvayoor, about three or four hundred devotees were already pushing and shoving to get a glimpse of the idol of Lord Krishna.  Waiting in line for over an hour, we finally made it to the sanctum sanctorum.  I chanted my Krishna prayers as I watched the priest decorate the idol of Lord Krishna for the pooja services at noon.  He covered the idol from head to toe in a thick layer of sandalwood paste.  To make the paste, sticks of sandalwood were laboriously, unhurriedly ground on the surface of a stone mortar, andcollected into bowls with reverence by the priest’s helpers.  I saw that it was a true labor of love and devotion.

Then, floral garlands made from white jasmines, bright red hibiscus petals, green Tulsi leaves and orange-red ixora blossoms were reverently hung over his chest.  Vibrant gold ornaments were added to adorn him from the crown on his head, large studs on his ears, four or five long chains hanging from his neck, bangles on both forearms, an arinjanam or waist links, complete with gold anklets on both legs.  The adornments stayed on Lord Krishna until after the evening pooja services.

The flickering flames of over a hundred oil lamps cast a surreal aura in the sanctum.  The aroma of incense sticks, the chanting of the thousand names of Lord Krishna by the priests, and the ringing of about a dozen brass bells, transported me to a place where I felt the blessings emanate from the idol of Lord Krishna, thus dissipating any timorousness in my leaving home for the first time.

After the evening services, the sandalwood paste was removed and distributed to devotees as blessed offerings called prasadams. Mom, Dad, and I received our shares.  We brought the sandalwood paste home and dried it in the sun into a light golden-yellow powder, for long-term preservation.  This was then packed into small sachets to travel with me to the United States.  Later, when I wished to invoke the blessings of Lord Krishna of Guruvayoor, all I would have to do is reconstitute a pinch of the sandalwood powder, using a drop of water, and then wear the paste on my forehead as a symbol of the Lord’s blessing.

In our Hindu household the religious fervor ranged from an occasional temple visit by my grandmother, to daily offerings of flowers to the nearest Devi Temple by my mother who said a prayer with every breath she took.  My father’s practice had an air of great sophistication as a devout follower of a Guru who guided him and us in the path towards the Knowledge of God.  I leaned more towards the ritualistic practice of my religion; the structured life suited me well.  I took comfort in my prayers yielding results, and yet when what I prayed for did not come true, the Gods were my comfort in handling my disappointment.

Part 2 to follow

 Shakuntala Rajagopal