A Simple Twist of Fate

As the days passed, I went through the motions, but I could not shake off the feeling that had seated itself at the bottom of my stomach when I walked out of the arrival hall – I was finally in America, but I felt totally inadequate and out of place. But every time I began to feel a wave of self-pity rise inside my heart, I would look around the house I was in and remind myself of the man who paved the way for Sundaram, and in turn, me, to be here.

Sundaram was born in a lower middle-class family, the youngest of his siblings, three boys and three girls. Like my own mother, his mother too was a child bride, but with little or no education. His father was an orthodox Brahmin, a high school mathematics teacher in a local Christian missionary school in Kerala; he could barely feed and educate his large family. At that time, most Indian families would prioritize the education of the male members of the family; girls were raised to be homemakers and mothers, to be married off to suitable grooms after a significant dowry was paid by the bride’s family. I say this was common for that time but not much has changed even today.

The only way, as it has been in many societies, to improve one’s social standing has been through education. The eldest of Sundaram’s brothers was a brilliant student, with a degree in electrical engineering, a job, married and settled down in Madras, India. The second brother did the same, with a degree in commerce and was employed at a bank. Krishnan was the third brother, sixteen years older than my husband, extremely smart, fiercely independent, and always trying to push boundaries.

At home, he was called Gopal. He wanted to study engineering, and performed very well in high school, but for reasons that are not known to me, did not make it to an engineering college. He was thoroughly disappointed but brushed off his feelings and pursued a degree in Economics with a scholarship and did extremely well. The same fate of his older brothers was all he could hope for – to get a job, to earn a living, and yes, eventually marry and get on with his life in India.

But that was not quite what happened after he got the job and married. By wit and wisdom, he changed his path, and this eventually made a whole lot of difference to the entire family. He was newly married; he had a son, and his wife was expecting another child. He was teaching in a college, in a city close to Kottayam, his hometown, and he generally took the ferry to and from Kottayam to the college town, stayed there in a lodging from Monday through Friday, and returned home for the weekend.

One Friday evening, as he was coming out of the college, he found an opened letter with American stamps, lying in the bin. Out of curiosity, he picked it up, and to his surprise, discovered that it was an unfilled form to apply for a Fulbright Scholarship, to go to the US for higher studies. One of his colleagues must have sent for it, and after looking at all the requirements, discarded it in the bin. He looked through it while he made his way home.

This was a fortuitous happening, something like when Alexander Fleming accidentally discovered penicillin. Out of sheer curiosity and boredom, he filled out the application, sent it out, and forgot about it. About two months later, a letter arrived from the American Consulate in Bombay — his application had been well received and he was invited for an interview with a selection committee in Bombay. Money for the trip was hard to come by but he managed it somehow, buying a third-class ticket on the Indian Railways and staying with a distant cousin in Bombay. No one thought much of it, including him. A couple of months passed and a very thick envelope, with bright American stamps, was delivered to him. It was a congratulatory letter from the Wharton School of Economics, University of Pennsylvania, informing him that he was a recipient of the Fulbright Scholarship to attend the prestigious Ivy League school. The scholarship would take care of his tuition and lodging but transportation from India to Philadelphia, US, was not covered. His Master of Business Administration program in Wharton School was to start in the fall of 1955.

He really wanted to go, get away from his routine life, study at Wharton, and change the fate of not only his life but his entire family. But he also had a young wife, a brilliant lady with a degree in mathematics, a two-year-old boy, and a six-month-old daughter. There was no way he could take them to the States, and he did not want to leave them at his father’s place, which was small and inconvenient. He spoke with his wife, saying it was the chance of a lifetime to make a change in the lives of everyone. She spoke with her father, who not only saw the merit of this golden opportunity but was glad to have his daughter and two grandchildren come back and stay with him if Krishnan did make it to the US. But the biggest hurdle for Krishnan was that there was no money to buy tickets for the journey.

He spoke with his father at length, who reluctantly agreed to mortgage his small house and raise the money for the trip. This must have been a very difficult decision, nothing short of a leap of faith.

The cheapest mode of travel would have been to go to Bombay by train, on a third-class ticket, travel from there on a cargo ship to a European port, and from there take a ship to New York. And that was exactly what Krishnan did. It was very painful for him to leave his young wife and children, say goodbye to all his friends and relatives and travel alone to a world that he knew little about. Traveling by cargo ship is a fascinating way to see the world, but if you have little or no money and you are on your maiden voyage to a totally unknown country, it can get scary.

Krishnan was a pure vegetarian, and he could not eat most of the food served. He had never smoked or drunk alcohol, and he was surrounded by strangers who did those things. The ship pulled in at various ports in Asia, Italy, Greece, and finally reached Great Britain. From there he was to board the famous ship, Queen Elizabeth I, and sail to the port of New York City on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. After weeks, he finally landed in Manhattan, New York and somehow managed to take a train to Philadelphia.

There was a chill in the air, fall season was on its way, and the city of Philadelphia was vastly different from his tiny hometown of Kottayam. He rode in a van to the graduate dorm at the University of Pennsylvania, was given a small room with the bare necessities; he attended an orientation that included a tour of the campus, details of his class schedules, and a meeting with a professor at Wharton who would be his advisor. He was feeling homesick, missing the sounds and smells of Kerala. People here were quite different, noticeably big, tall, and extremely loud; he could not comprehend their accent and felt weird about how some of them dressed. He spent most of the early days writing long letters to his wife and parents.

Time passed quickly – orientation continued, meeting with professors, signing up for courses for the fall semester, buying books, getting ready for classes, meeting fellow students. He was constantly tired and hungry. In those days, America was a meat-and-potatoes nation and there was nothing good to eat in the cafeteria. Someone suggested going to the supermarket and buying milk, bread, butter, jam, and fruits and that is what he did. He saw frozen vegetables in the freezer section and raw rice in packets. Krishnan had a brainwave right then. “What if I can go to a hardware store, get an electric heating plate and a couple of vessels and utensils? Then I can boil the rice, cook the frozen vegetable, add some salt, and pepper, and buy some yogurt. And yes, I will have my meal. I can buy some potato chips to go with my food,” he thought to himself.

There was a strict policy in the dorm regarding cooking inside the rooms since it was a fire hazard. Krishnan decided to defy this rule and the fact that he could be caught and reprimanded did not stop him. He was successful, concealing his plan, but then one day he forgot to turn off the stove, and the room began to smoke. The authorities figured out what he had been up to, and well, that was the end of his planned meals.

In the meantime, his studies at Wharton went well. He had an astute mind, a beaming, winning smile, and he was very quick at grasping complex concepts. He was always excited by novel ideas, was able to think outside the box, and soon the faculty at Wharton noticed this young man, who had sacrificed a lot to come to this country to do better and become a beacon for his family. The first commercial computer was being developed at UPenn back then, led by a woman named Dr. Grace Hopper. Dr Hopper was a United States Navy Rear Admiral and a pioneer of computer programming; she had worked on the Harvard Mark I computer and after meeting Krishnan, had wanted him to work with her.

Krishnan had to make some tough decisions. He desperately wanted to bring his family to the United States. His children were going to particularly good English medium schools in India, their grandparents were doting on them, and they were involved in a variety of cultural programs, music, dance, and the like. He knew in his heart that with the little money he was making, he could not afford to bring his children over at that time. But he desperately wanted his wife to be near him. He missed her very much, her smile, her pleasant and kind disposition, her cooking and musical talents. She had an undergraduate degree in mathematics from Kerala University, India with remarkably high credentials, and Krishnan thought maybe she could pursue her graduate studies at UPenn, get her doctorate degree, and eventually become a professor. He was daydreaming but determined to make it happen.

Getting a job and staying on in the US was tougher even after Krishnan finished his MBA. The conditions of the Fulbright scholarship stipulated that people who came to the US under the scholarship must return to their home country, live there for at least a year, and then reapply for a visa. Senator J. William Fulbright, who started this program to benefit developing nations around the world, wanted these scholars to serve their motherland. It was a good thing in principle, but for Krishnan, it would have been the opposite of what he wanted. Luckily for him, his friendship with Dr. Grace Hopper helped. She was able to use her influence to get him an immigrant visa without having to go back to India.

“ENIAC,” the computer Hopper and Krishnan worked on, became a big hit. Remington acquired the rights to expand it commercially, and the newly formed Remington Rand Univac Company invited Krishnan to join them. Once he had a job and a legal immigrant visa, he brought his wife, Lalitha, to the United States. It must have been exceedingly difficult for her to leave her children and come, but she did. She received admission for graduate studies at UPenn, finished her graduate studies, got a job in one of the State Colleges of Pennsylvania and taught for almost forty years. They were able to bring their children over much later, when they were in their early teens.

We call him the Unsung hero of our family because no matter what, he continued to help his family in India. He put Sundaram through engineering college in Kerala, got him a visa to come to the US, and had him stay with him for six years, while he went to UPenn to get his doctoral degree. He also financed his brother-in-law Raju’s medical school education, who later became a renowned oncologist.

People in India have this notion that once you go to America, you become rich, and have money to spare. All the glossy magazines show cars everywhere, fabulous landscapes and many luxury items, making those back home think that America is the land of plenty. All through his life, Krishnan received letters from his friends and relatives for small favors. He dutifully sent monthly remittances to his elderly father, for treatment for terminal colon cancer, and for his widowed sister with four children, who had to flee Karachi, after the Partition of India in 1947. The list goes on and on.

Once Sundaram finished his graduate work, he got a teaching position in the University of New Mexico. He then got his immigrant visa and a job offer from Bell Laboratories. Krishnan wanted him to get married, so he went back to India, interviewed me, and wrote saying that I would be the perfect wife for Sundaram. Both brothers continued to send money to members of their family for education, marriages, and the like – and I am happy to say that almost everyone in their extended family in India is doing well. We have architects, engineers, doctors, physicists, computer scientists, marine biologists, musicians, statisticians, businesspeople in my husband’s family — all because of the hard decision our unsung hero made all those years ago.