Off to America

Verghese Chirayath, associate professor emeritus of sociology, recalls his first voyage to the States from India in the early 1960s.

On July 23,1963, I started my long voyage to America.

The day before was filled with last-minute details. I went to the Reserve Bank of India to follow up about the permit I received the previous day to arrange to purchase $50 with Indian rupees. The exchange then was about four rupees to the dollar. My Indian passport, issued June 22 in Calcutta (now Kolkata), India, and my nonimmigrant student U.S. visa, dated July 22, now carried official notification that I was permitted to leave the country with US$50. The visa had a notification in the bottom left corner that simply stated “Med.” Later, I learned the notification was to alert U.S. Customs officials at Idlewild Airport (now John F. Kennedy International Airport) that I was required to carry a chest X-ray with me to make sure I didn’t have tuberculosis.

July 23, 1963, was full of excitement. The monsoons arrived, although no rain was present that day, just bright sunshine. My parents had arrived from Jamshedpur, India, where I’d grown up, to see me off.

Pratap, my brother who lived with me in Bombay (now Mumbai), was nowhere in sight. He was conveniently out of town or unavailable. He had torn open a thick envelope addressed to me. When I arrived back to our apartment after classes at St. Xavier’s in Dhobitalao, India – where I enrolled for college after I left Vinayalaya, the Jesuit seminary – my brother held up my scholarship papers to exclaim: “You beggar. You are going to America.” I was stunned.

Many weeks before, I had written a letter to Fr. William M.J. Driscoll, S.J., who regularly wrote a column called “It Occurs to Me” in a magazine titled the Jesuit. I asked Fr. Driscoll if I could continue my Jesuit education in America. I had graduated from Loyola School in Jamshedpur, which was run by the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus, the same province that published Fr. Driscoll.

Little did I know, Fr. Driscoll had sent my inquiry to the newly appointed rector at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania. The letter from Scranton started: “Very Reverend Fr. Edward J. Sponga (who left the Society of Jesus in 1968) has agreed to grant you a scholarship to the University of Scranton to cover your room, board, and tuition.” Also included was a presidential grant for $1,640 a year for four years. I was overjoyed and hastily signed and returned the forms that were enclosed indicating acceptance of this grant.

I hurried to the American Express office with my dad to book my passage and flight to America. My passage – which included my embarkation notice, BOAC passenger ticket, and passage ticket with Anchor Line – was on the RMS Caledonia. To this day, I carry the blue envelope I clutched as I left the American Express office. My itinerary was printed on the embarkation notice: Karachi, Pakistan, July 25; Aden, Yemen, July 29; Port Said, Egypt, Aug. 4; Gibraltar, Aug. 9; and Liverpool, England, Aug. 13. My journey would continue by train to London’s Gatwick Airport for my flight to New York via Shannon, Ireland.

The procedures for boarding the RMS Caledonia were explicit and cumbersome, to say the least. All baggage had to be delivered at No. 18, Alexandra Dock at 7 a.m., Tuesday, July 23. At 8 a.m., medical examinations would commence, as required by the Port Health officer with the caveat that after 9 a.m. those not in attendance wouldn’t be permitted to sail. Examinations of my baggage by Indian Customs was to take place by 8 a.m., and my baggage had to be ready for shipment. On the back of my passage ticket, I noted, in large letters, my cabin number: B85 A.

Once my luggage was on board, it was time to bid farewell to my parents, family, India, and Bombay, where I lived since May 1962. My hugs lingered with my mother as we mingled tears with barely audible words not knowing when we would meet again. For my dad, a formal handshake was enough. I had left him once before when I joined the Jesuit seminary in Hazaribagh, India. This time, it was a parting for America. His advice was to be watchful of U.S. currency, which, unlike Indian currency, was the same size despite the varied values. With two twenties and a ten, I got his message.

In all the hustle and bustle at the Alexandra docks with thela gaddis (the Hindustani term for long, two-wheeled push carts), bicycles, cabs, private vehicles, buses, and tongas, the gang plank to the Caledonia was down, and passengers and relatives were permitted to board the ship and examine its decks, cabins, state rooms, and dining room. My parents and I checked out B85 A. It was small but adequate. The bed, sofa, and sink were all bolted to the floor. Soon enough, I discovered the tables in the dining room were, too. Heaven forbid the dishes would slide to the floor in the event of a storm, when stomachs were turning and heaving upward searching for an outer deck. A modicum of equilibrium was a sine qua non.

Allowing for Indian standard time when delays are inevitable, a whistle went off, and the giant horns of the ship bellowed as PA systems announced all nonsailing guests were to depart right away. Anchor Lines were, after all, British and following their schedule for departure. Cabin stewards hastened the departure of the last visitors on board.

As the ship pulled out, I waved for as long as I could see my parents from the top deck. Debussy’s La Mer played softly through my memory until at last my tears dried in the salty air. We were in the Indian Ocean. Whatever sweetness there was in this parting, I never experienced it. It was time to curl up in B85 A.

Verghese J. Chirayath, Ph.D., is associate professor emeritus of sociology. He served at John Carroll from 1970 to 2006.

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