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

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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.

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

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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

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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 interview at WTTW Chicago

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Hello,
Last August I was interviewed by Mr. Eddie Griffin at Channel 11, WTTW, Chicago for two hours.
I think you all remember how excited I was to share my memories of Chicago, (I am always enthusiastic to share my stories with any one who cares to listen).
The program will be aired later this month.
Remembering Chicago, 70s and 80s
Channel 11, WTTW
Date: November 26th, 2012 Monday
Time: 7.30 PM
I believe it is a two hour presentation, and about seventeen people were interviewed.
My photos are included, I am told.
There will be pitch for donations for WTTW, as usual.
Most likely, there will be three or four quotes from me.
Still, I thought you would want to know.
Remembering where we are when Social, Economical, and Political events happen, and sharing our experiences with our children and grandchildren are important for many reasons.
In case of positive outcomes, the stories of our own celebration on the occasion  will make more of an impression in their minds than reading about it in the history books.
In case of tragedy, our reactions, and how well we survived, or could not survive, will give them intimate insights as to how they can react to events in their lives.
So, we will find out soon whether the tales I have told will make an impact or not.
Shaku

My artwork on display in Algonquin, Illinois

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Great news everyone!

      Lake Geneva Sunset, Oil on Canvas

Three of my Oil Paintings have been chosen for public display by    the Algonquin Public Arts Commission and Village Board of Trustees.

They will be on exhibit at the Harnish Library, Eastgate Library, and Neubert Elementary School in Algonquin, Illinois for one year.

I had my initial training in oils at Holy Angels Convent High School, in Trivandrum, India.  During my Medical School and when my children were young I did not pursue this passion of mine.  Later, I picked up the art again.

For the last fifteen years my friend Padma and I get together at least twice a month to draw and paint.

Since 2006, both of us have had the pleasure of working with a wonderful Art Teacher and friend, Mrs. Debbie Howard at the River Art Studio in Algonquin.

While it is gratifying to be able to do work that you love and enjoy, to be recognized by      your peers is indeed a real blessing.

Shaku

Hibiscus, Oil on Canvas

 

Mother and Child, Oil on Canvas

 

 

 

 

Summer breeze

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Shaku, sister Shanti and Ammoomma (Grandma)

Summer Breeze  

Summer breeze
warm and wet, from the seas
waving, moving, my hair set abreeze
running running
sand in my eyes
sand in my toes

sandals thrown , lost in the sand
echoes of my ammoomma’s voice
leave your sandals in the car, lost in the wind
too late too late, they are
gone in the sand
sand everywhere

winter breeze
dry and cold from the snow
boots dig deep
heavy steps dragging dragging
chills my bones and bogs me down
tries to stomp my spirit

pick up your feet, go on go on
life’s to be lived, and love’s awaiting
I call on the summer breeze
come blow, and blow
and fan the fire within me
warm up my soul, my body and mind

million miles from summer
million miles from sands
is it too far for the summer breeze to flow?
will it blow, will I grow?
I know I will, ‘cause
the summer breeze lies within

Shakuntala Rajagopal

My Journey Part 4 of 4

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My Journey    Part 4 of 4 parts

Forty eight years later, I still remember how heavy my heart felt, to leave my ammoomma and everyone else, but how the parcel of blessings that I carried with me acted as an umbrella that raised me in the wind to waft me over the waters, a parachute that assured my smooth landing, on new ground.

On my last night at home I sobbed on my Mom’s shoulder.  “I can’t leave all of you.”  She replied with dry eyes and a firm voice, “karayathe ponnu-molé, don’t cry my golden daughter, you will see your dear husband Balu soon.  Your place is with him.  We will be all right.”

All blessings come with strings attached.  When loved ones bless you, your father, mother, ammoomma, maami, they also transfer their power and their past on to you.  In accepting their blessings, you feel it essential to carry on the legacy and the work bestowed upon you by the broad, but often tired, shoulders that carried the burdens before you.

But, despite the blessings and despite the empowerment, I felt totally lost and totally alone in a new country.  As much as you are happy to see your husband after such a long time, you miss the many that surrounded you every day, and the loneliness seemed almost insurmountable, at the time.

The purpose of the journey will always color the experiences of the traveler.  Being that my one and only aim was to join my love at the other side of the world, love colored all my experiences as the traveler.

 

What I did not know then was that a journey is not a trip.  A trip starts from the point of departure and ends at the point of arrival.  In my journey, the point of departure was not a clean break, because the sum of all that had happened in my life up to then came along for the ride.  It was with me when I reached my ‘destination.’

My journey had just begun.

part 4 of 4

Shakuntala Rajagopal