Arun Bhowmick

Civil Engg, 1969
Interviewed By: 
Amitavha Mukherjee, BME 1998

 
Tell us about your childhood, family & your early passions
Born in what is now Bangladesh, in 1945, I migrated to India in 1947. Spent early years in Assam and Tripura, and later few years in Calcutta. Grew up with a brother and two sisters.
I come from a poor family, so I did not grow up with toys. But playing soccer with tribal children (Naga, Cooki, Khashia, Gaaro in Assam) with grape fruit (no soccer ball) was awesome. We had a new “ball” every 3 minutes. I remember draining water out of small ponds with just buckets and then grabbing the fish with bare hands in that muddy mess, making customized floats out of banana tree trunks and racing in the lake, making top class sling shots from wishbones out of guava trees, these were the things we did as youngsters.
Early passions were anything but school homework. After school, football and other village games (no cricket in villages) till sundown, I would want to just fall asleep on the floor, forget about homework.
My early days were very colorful. Day long lake side fishing, kite flying, ‘Danda Gulee’, spinning wooden tops in tournaments (you wouldn’t know what that might be), stealing chicken from across the border (while in Agartala), some music, these were fun stuff during the early years.
Then came the “teenage”. I honestly do not recall us being treated any differently by our parents, neighbors, law enforcement, or anyone else during those days. In this day and age, and in America, “teenager” is a loaded word. Parents are apprehensive, neighbors talk and look with a frown, advice comes left and right from law enforcement officers, and who knows what else. But we simply rolled into it, and out of it without much to make noise about. The only interesting thing those days was, specially for girls, “is your mother looking for a husband yet?”. For boys, it was cricket, just getting into Uttam Suchitra stuff (my heartthrob was Vyjayanthimala, don’t know if she is still alive, O’well --- ).
Teasing girls, wearing baseball caps backwards, wearing blue jeans in 100 degree days, using English slangs with laughable accent --- no we did not do that. These were not “cool stuff” during those days.
At around 17, smoking a cigarette became hot. Like many others, I started with Panama brand. I don’t know if that brand exists anymore. I just joined college, had absolutely no money, was supporting myself on a stipend of 40 rupees a month to cover ALL costs (by the way, the stipend money was for my second place standing in the finals of Polytechnic exams, thank God !). So I am now thinking how the heck did I save any money for the smoke. Well I didn’t. I was pretty good singer, used to sing with friends all the time, and the butts came free.
 
How were your days in Jadavpur University? Tell us all those interesting stuffs …
I joined JU as a “night class student” after getting a diploma in civil engineering from Tripura Polytechnic in 1964. So, I did not enjoy the usual fun stuff at JU. We used to get there around 5:30 after work, enjoy “Ponchur dokaner cha” across the train station, and rush to the class. We did our practical classes on weekends, and life was really busy for 4 years. I did manage to come to all the annual cultural programs (there was specific name for this show, I forget, may be it was called “The Social”).
Since we had 3 years of basic engineering exposure in Polytechnic, we had to attend 4 years, not 5, like the undergrad degree. I recall our final exam of the final year was on 2600 points, and I had beat out all others, day and night, by scoring 2010. That was a record for the next few years; thereafter I do not know what happened. Of course, if you score 2010 out of 2600 in today’s grading system, you probably barely pass, or less. No multiple choice questions in those days, no flipping coins, no iPads or iPhones, not even any calculators. We used “log tables” for math calculations, something you folks probably would not recognize. I remember I saved up some money to finally buy a “slide rule”, which I still have.
There were some “stand out” teachers at JU those days. Some names that come in mind are Triguna Sen, Nilay Chowdhury, Chitta Ranjan Das, Ashok Sharma to name a few. And then there were Sagar Rakhits and Bhola Ghoses, etc.  
An important event I remember is the Convocation for our year of graduation. Since there were almost no employment opportunities at all, we decided to express our anger and frustration by boycotting the ceremony - by coming to the event all dressed up, but refusing to receive the degree when your name was called. My name was called first, and I was being torn apart at that moment. Half of me said – go get the fruit of your labor, the other half said – keep your commitment. There was a silence for a few seconds, people who came as guests were wondering what was going on. I did keep my commitment; I did not go to the podium. Some went as far as taking it and tearing it in front of everyone present. It is an irony that we do not remember the joy, the challenges, the wonderful times, the long arduous 4 years, but we remember tearing away the fruit of all the hardship in a moment. It was quite a show that afternoon.
I did collect my certificate a week later after the dust settled down.
 
And, Coming to America?
It was somewhat accidental. After getting the undergraduate degree (with pretty good record as I said earlier) in summer of 1969, I could not find any appropriate work. Employment was extremely tight, and the vacancies were only filled by ones who had contacts with “who’s who” in Calcutta. I did not have any such influential “baba, or kakus, or jethus, or dadas”, and I was beginning to feel helpless and useless.
Just then one day, while hanging out and shooting the bull with a friend in “Garrer maath”, he said – “US consulate is giving forms for immigration application. You want to take a walk?” I had nothing to do, and I said ok. That moment did change my life. I went with him, got the forms, and for next 6 months did the formalities as asked for by the consulate. And then --- BOOM --- one day I get the visa offer valid for something like 4 months.
Now things became tough. I am the oldest of siblings, so leaving my dad with two young sisters, leaving for a place which is almost out of this world (that’s how the feeling was in those days), not home for Puja, bhai fota, IFA shield final, not having “mayer haater Paayesh” on my birthday, not going to Gangar Ghat with local truck for bisharjan on Dashami, not having baba’s and ma’s blessings on Bijoya Dashami, and many other things, started to pile up emotionally. At the same time, not having any meaningful income and not being able to contribute to support our family, no real prospects for a real job ----- this was a real tug of war, and I was being torn apart. Many of us from lower middle class families who came to America during late 60’s or early 70’s went through these emotionally difficult times. At the end, “no real prospect for a real job, and not being able to help my dad financially being the eldest son with a good college degree”, won the war of emotions. I decided to move on, telling myself that nothing could be worse than what I was going through.
My dad supported me ALL THE WAY. He withdrew all his savings (Provident Fund, I think it was called) telling the authorities that he needs the money for his daughter’s wedding. I also worked extra (doing house plans for 3 or 4 Salt Lake homes), saved up as much as I could, and finally bought a plane ticket to USA, the world of total anxiety and uncertainty.  No friends, no money ($8.00 cash, yes folks, that’s all, and a bank voucher of $250), no relatives, just youth and education and confidence to bank on.
I was thinking in the plane about the friend who had said --- “US consulate was giving out forms  -------------------“. That sentence did turn my life in a different direction. Don’t know where he is now. Hopefully he is alive and well.
 
Tell us about your defining moments in this country …
By now you are probably thinking ----- when is Arun da going to finish up his lengthy chat? So, I won’t go into much, but you can probably imagine that for a man coming to USA at a tender age of 25 in 1971, he must have gone through a ton of stuff that he will never forget, like the first place of residence (a hotel room shared with bunch of others, where all men looked like muggers and all women looked like hookers), the first job (did not need a slide rule or a book, but mop and a broom), the first check (needed a thumb print, not a signature), embarrassing moments trying to learn how to drive at the old age of 25, collapsing knees while trying to hold hands of my first girl friend (O’boy, what a challenge that was, needed lot of “Bengay”s to straighten those knees), first major auto accident (statistically speaking, I should have been dead on the spot, but ----- here I am), academic career and professional life, friends that I made, friends that I lost, my family, my wife (everyone seems to know and love her), my children, now grandchildren, and a whole lot more.
But that’s for another day. 
 
Most of us know Arun-da from outside of his professional world. For those who do not know you, can you please let us know about the things you do beyond work? About  your social / cultural involvements?
This list may also be long, since I seem to like to do anything that I can get my hands on. I do them all, nothing really good, but do it any way. I play sports, I play music, hit the gym sometime, I go fishing, I travel, I teach music to children, I have been associated with clubs like Kallol, NJPA, etc. forever, institutions like Vivekananda Vidyapith and Swaminarayan Temple for many years teaching music to their children. Am also closely associated with Ananda Mandir doing and managing all of our cultural events, and managing construction activities with others. I enjoy doing these stuff as much as my health permits.  
You may have heard about a very popular monthly cultural program at Ananda Mandir that I started 8 years ago, called Ananda Sandhya. It is still going on every month without missing a beat, featuring top class musicians from India, as well as promoting local talents. You may want to visit sometime, you will love it.
During football season, I am either out at NY Giants stadium, or stuck to the flat screen watching. Love to watch any sport really. Devils, Yankees, Mets, Nets, I follow them all.
So you see, I do too many things, nothing good, but always busy doing something either by myself, or with family, or with friends. Sometimes I wish I had 9 days a week, 30 hours a day. I relax on Monday mornings in my office.
 
What’s your next interesting project?
I do not have a ‘next interesting project’ per say, I would take it as it comes on a day to day basis. Right now, I am looking after the ongoing construction at Ananda Mandir with couple of other volunteer friends, hoping to complete the project in two years, so that the Bengali community can finally have a real personal temple and a community center of our own. 
 
Tell us about people or events who had a positive impact in your life…
To name ‘people’ who had positive impact on my life, I would say ---

  • ·         My father showed me how to stand tall with a good head on my shoulder
  • ·         My mother showed me how to love and be loved
  • ·         All exemplary people in any walk of life, be it Mandela or Bill Gates or Joe Montana or Leonard Bernstein or like, will have positive impact on my life. I suppose that is true for all of us.
  • ·         My children taught me how to quit smoking by constantly giving me advice for years, and that was a big deal for me and my family.
  • ·         O’ I almost forgot – Vyjayanthimala taught me how to stare at someone without blinking, that came in handy later in life.

As for positive impact in my life, there must be many, just can’t pin down any particular one. One positive impact certainly was when I saw my two daughters growing up with positive focus ahead, clear vision, dodging trouble, engaging in rewarding things in life. I suppose we all would consider that as positive impact in a father’s life.
 
What about things that you like, and the ones that you hate?
I love time with my family, my children, my grandchildren. I love ‘constructive activities’, creative discussions, a good sporting event, a quality musical evening, and more.
I hate PNPC (you know what that is, right? Paro Ninda Paro Charcha), I hate mandatory Saturday night goat meat parties with people that I see once in six months or less, I hate to sit on my butt and watch soap opera or serials, I hate confrontation with unreasonable people.
 
What would be your advice to young alums?
I am really not a wise person that would know the proper advice for younger folks. Just what I learned from my life, I could share a few things ---

  • ·         Life in this country when you are in your late 20’s or 30’s could be very difficult at times. There are times when you may feel a bit helpless. Do what you are supposed to do, and the hardship will pass. It always does, sooner or later.
  • ·         Do not dwell on silly emotions.  Minor, eventually insignificant, silly emotions are the root of most misunderstandings, hard feelings, and confrontations. One mostly forgets the cause, but the bad taste in mouth remains. Learn to ignore and brush off what would be unimportant tomorrow. Life will be peaceful that way, and you won’t have enemies. 
  • ·         Learn to walk away from situations that will lead to confrontation with unreasonably stupid people. You don’t want to join the ‘stupid’ club.
  • ·         Do everything you can do to make yourself and your family reasonably comfortable, but don’t sign up for the ‘rat race’ (bigger house, bigger car, bigger blah blah blah). Remember – in a rat race, the one who wins is still a rat.
  • ·         Just learn to enjoy life with what you have. Life is really short. Have good friends, spend time with your children – they really grow up too fast, enjoy a drink or two (Black Label is my favorite, call me if you need company), quit smoking (I realized it bothers others around you more than it bothers you), if you are musically inclined then you already know how to spend relaxing time.
  • ·         Listen to your heart for advice on what to do to be happy. A happy man sleeps well through the night.

I thought I did not have much for advice, but see, the list is getting long. I know, some of the readers are saying at this point --- “Wise Guy !!”
Some others might, just might be saying --- ‘some of the stuff ain’t so bad’
 
Finally, anything else that I did not cover earlier?
I think you covered pretty much all I can say. Anything else will be repetitious.
Now you can read me like a book, right? I will stop here.