Surya Dutta

BE - Civil Engineering
Interviewed By: 
Amitavha Mukherjee

"I landed in Boston with eleven dollars in my pocket ..."
Brief about your childhood & your passions:
My childhood was very simple and uneventful. I am from a typical middle-class Bengali family. Both sides of my family are originally from East Bengal. Generally speaking, my father's family approached life more practically, while my mother's family was more inclined towards the arts. In my father's family, education was  first priority. They were also very passionate about politics. Our home back in Feni, Noakhali was known as "Sadeshi Bari." Even during the worst of times, in 1948 and in the sixties, our house was never attacked because it was assumed (incorrectly!) that the house was filled with ammunition. No one in our family is now in Bangladesh. Everyone moved to West Bengal by the sixties. My mother's family was very passionate about the arts as well as education. My mother passed matriculation with brilliant results. She was also a good singer (even being offered a chance to sing on the radio). She played Esraj as well. But everything stopped once she got married. Times were so different back then. It reminds me the famous story of Ashapurna Devi's Subarnalata.
Days in JU - anything interesting to share:
My degree at JU was in Civil Engineering and I attended JU at night and worked full-time during the day at an engineering company. It was quite exhausting. But I had a good time too. I have great memories of sitting around doing "adda" in the local coffee house with friends.
Tell us about the starting of your professional life:
When I was young, the market dictated what line would lead to a decent job after graduation. The scope of getting a good job was very limited. Initially my father wanted me to be a doctor but I declined and instead followed my Barda's line (my eldest cousin who was an engineer in Shibpur). In America, I completed my master's degree in New York, in Industrial Engineering. Again, I attended classes at night while working full-time during the day (with a young daughter at home). Fortunately, the company where I worked paid for my education. 
Who / what incidents made a positive impact in your professional life:
After my graduation from JU, I worked at Bridge & Roof, at the head office in Howrah. Our Chief Design Engineer was Ashish Sengupta (he now lives in New Jersey). He was a brilliant engineer. There were dozens of design engineers working under him and they all worked in different projects (blast furnaces, bridges, cold rolling mills, high-tension electric grids, etc.). All of these engineers came to him with all different types of design problems. What surprised (and impressed) me--still today--was how he was able to understand each individual problem so quickly and was able to solve each problem right way! How could a person have such a brilliant and sharp intellectual mind?
What's the story behind coming to America:
Coming to America was an accident. In 1969, I was working in Bridge & Roof at the Bokaro Steel plant. One of my friends told me that the US government had opened up immigration to engineers, doctors, pharmacists,accountants, and nurses. So the next time I went to Calcutta, at the end of 1969, I visited the US Consulate and applied for immigration with one-hundred rupees. I thought, "What do I have to lose?" Within a few months, there was a call from the Consulate's office. They wanted me to visit a doctor and get some x-rays done. By the end of 1970, I got the green light to go to America. I landed in the US on January 26th, 1971 after touring Switzerland (I stayed with my cousin for three days) and London. I landed in Boston with eleven dollars in my pocket. 
Defining moments in this country:
I came to America in 1971; it was the era of Nixon and Vietnam. There was such economic and political turmoil. Jobs were scarce. Lots of my friends (fellow Bengali immigrants) were doing odd jobs. The majority of them were in New York. I began my American life in Connecticut, staying with a distant relative. With his help, I went to Government Employment office. They told me that an engineering company was looking for a design draftsman. They arranged an interview for the following day. This would be my first job interview in America! I went to my interview--very nervous of course! The company had never heard the name Jadavpur University before! After they interviewed me, they asked me to draft something for them. It was an "engineering audition." I felt--as I feel now--an appreciation for how they gave me the opportunity to prove myself. After they looked at my drawings, they offered me the job on the spot! I began working there on the second week of February in 1971. I was hired without  recommendations or references. It was not based on where I went to school or who my family was. They were basing my hiring entirely on my merit, and this was very refreshing to me and a reflection of an American ideal. I got the job within three weeks of landing in America. I was so lucky! It was a profound defining moment in my life.
Of course, there were many defining moments: buying my first car in March of 1971, a new Datsun 510, which cost me $2,100, gave me a complete sense of freedom. My wife Gouri arrived in April of 1974, four months after we got married in Kolkata. It was a turning point, experiencing the sense that there was someone in my life now who was my own, someone that I could talk to about anything and everything without any hesitation. My daughter arrived in March of 1981, an unbelievable feeling and a new sense of purpose. I became an American citizen in 1983. In 2000, I lost my wife, two weeks short of our twenty-seventh anniversary. My early retirement in 2003 gave me complete freedom, and I celebrated by traveling immediately to Britain, France and Italy.
What keeps you busy nowadays:
I worked for the same company for thirty-one years. After retiring, my passions and interests really had a chance to grow and develop. I spend a lot of time each day listening to different types of music (right now I'm doing my own research into the different folk music styles of India--I find it totally fascinating! This information is not easy to find. Besides our Bengali folk music, which is very rich and vibrant, I have found Assamese folk music to be very interesting, colorful, energetic, and melodically beautiful. I think Bhupen Hazarica made a great contribution to this particular genre). I have also developed a beloved collection of DVDs and I watch lots of films both old and new. I read The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Time magazine and occasionally I like to read Bengali books as well. I enjoy traveling (I traveled through northwestern America, western Canada, and Alaska last year, and am planning a month-long journey through England, Scotland, and Ireland next month).
I also give my time to Ananda Mandir. Because I am available during the day, I can do a lot of official work which is difficult to do in the evening or at night. I think it is my obligation and duty to contribute my time and money to the cause of serving my community. Every community of Americans (Italian, Polish, Hungerain, Jews, etc.) does this. I think each of us has an obligation to our future generations.     
Things that you like, and the other ones that you hate:
I like to help people, particularly sick and lonely people. I always feel good if I can make someone happy. I like "adda" and enjoy the company of people who have a good sense of humor.
I do not like people who lie. I always try to avoid egocentric people, though I do feel pity towards them.
Advice for young alums:
I think it's generally best to avoid doling out a lot of advice! There is an interesting saying by G.K. Chesterton: "I owe my success to having listened respectfully to the very best advice, and then going away and doing the exact opposite."