An Independence Day of Sorts: Beginning a Migration

15 August 1947 is Independence Day in India. It is also my father-in-law’s birthday, a midnight’s child. And it is the day I left India–in 1987, forty years later–to migrate to the US.

My ‘migration’–such as it was–consists of pretty standard fare: I began as a graduate student, armed with an admission letter to a graduate program in technology and engineering, headed for a small technical school on the US east coast; later, after obtaining full-time employment and a visa change to a ‘skilled worker in short supply’,  becoming a ‘permanent resident’ and after returning to graduate school to initiate a career change via a move to a different academic field, I would become a naturalized citizen.

But it all began with a one-way journey on a British Airways flight to London and then on to New York. My mother drove me to the airport after a sleepless night; my flight left at 6AM, which meant checking in at 3AM. I had never flown in an aircraft before. (Well, as an adult; apparently, I had accompanied my mother on a short flight in the Indian northeast when I was a six-week old baby.)

The flight to London felt long and tedious, its monotony only partially relieved by the awe-inspiring landscapes occasionally visible through our windows, and the beers we drank and the cigarettes we smoked. (I was accompanied by a pair of acquaintances also headed for graduate school in the US, and yes, in those days you could smoke, at high-altitude, inside the pressurized cabins of transcontinental airliners.)

After arrival at, and departure from, London’s bustling and intimidating Heathrow, I finally arrived, a little wide-eyed despite the exhaustion engendered by yet another eight-hour flight, at JFK airport.  The dreaded INS officers were little softies, and soon I was in the arrivals hall, waiting for an old high-school friend to pick me up.

Through the glass walls of the terminal all I could see was an airport. But I knew I was in a different land. Outside, it was America.

Later as I was driven back to my first night’s digs in Hicksville, Long Island, I marveled–like a good old-fashioned rube—at the cars, the crowded expressways, the gleaming supermarket–and the dazed and confused cash register clerk–where we stopped to pick up supplies. My first meal was microwaved pizza washed down with a Löwenbräu. It was not a particularly distinguished culinary kick-off and gave me some inkling of the nature of a very particular deprivation that awaited me.

15 August 1987 was a longer day than most. I traveled from summer to summer, traversing ten time zones and spent most of the day, ironically, at rest, cramped and uncomfortable, even as I traveled thousands of miles away from all that had been familiar and comprehensible for twenty years. I moved to a place I imagined I knew well but which was to prove, unsurprisingly, far more intractable to my understanding than I might have reckoned with.

Twenty-six years ago, I began the process of placing quotes around ‘home.’

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