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A Trip Down Memory Lane

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December 2002
A Trip Down Memory Lane

Vishal was awestruck. As someone visiting from India, he had not quite foreseen such a spectacle of Indians in America. As the car inched closer to the Sardar Bhavan Hall in Tucker, in the dim of the night, he could see hordes of people walking towards the Hall, many sporting Sarees and Salwar Kameezes. ?Wow!? exclaimed Vishal to his hosts as they walked towards the main door. ?It?s just like India,? he observed gazing at the thousands of bobbing heads in the huge Hall.

It was Gujarati Samaj?s Navratri 2002 celebrations. According to Amit Shah, President of the Gujarati Samaj, on their busiest night, they had 5500 people attend! And this was only one (albeit, the largest) of the three Navratri celebration venues in Atlanta. That same night, at least another couple thousand attended the Shakti Mandir Navratri program on the south side of town, while a few hundred more were making merry at the IACA celebrations in Smyrna.

More amazing is the fact that these thousands of Navratri revelers were mainly from the Gujarati community, which is only one of the many regional communities of Indian immigrants who now call Georgia home.

Such an explosion of the Indian population in Georgia is a far, far cry from the time Jagan Bhargave came to America in 1962.

Back then, a half-a-dozen or so students at Georgia Tech made up the entire Indian population in the area. Mr. Bhargave holds the unique distinction of being one of the first Indian immigrant in Georgia. While there were perhaps a handful of Indians who had come before him, they were all students who went on to other pastures after completing their studies in Atlanta.

Here then is the story of the community?s growth, from 1 to over 60,000 strong?

The Beginning: Coming to Georgia

In 1958, a young Senator from Massachusetts stood on the Floor of the United States Senate and condemned what he called his country?s ?racist immigration policies of old that discriminated against people of Asian origin.? At the time, only a few individuals took heed to this gentleman?s stinging proclamation, but in time, he would prove to his colleagues just how right he was.

Two years later, America said ?good bye? to President Dwight D. Eisenhower and rolled out the red carpet for that same young senator, John F. Kennedy; and with him, it seems, for Indian immigrants as well.

Even as America shaped up as the destination of choice for the ambitious young Indian elite, the ?deep South?, was still viewed with apprehension. After all, aside from the fabled southern hospitality, the South was still highly retro, conservative and monolithic ? not exactly the kind of region that foreigners would find welcoming. More significantly, segregation was still very much alive.

Dr. Sohan Manocha, one of the early pioneers of the Atlanta Indian community recalls that when he was offered a job in Atlanta in 1964, his Canadian compatriots (where he was studying) cautioned him against the move. Yet, Dr. Manocha choose to ignore their warnings; he was curious and the job offer was appealing. To his pleasant surprise, Atlanta was spectacular. ?It was luscious and serene ? like a hill station. There were at least three times as many trees as there are now. It?s hard to imagine Atlanta during those days. Interstate I-75 ended at West Paces Ferry road! Need I say more? ?

Another veteran of the community, Mr Giriraj Rao first visited Atlanta in 1959 shortly after migrating to California from India. Due to his affiliation with the Coca Cola Company, he was a frequent visitor up until the time he moved here for good in the ?70s. According to Mr. Rao, in those early years Atlanta had a distinct small town feel. Despite companies like Delta and Coca Cola being headquartered here, it was not considered amongst the major American cities, as it is now. He remembers a Cuban secretary of the late Roberto Goizueta, President of Coca Cola. She would chide Atlantans who tended to oversell it as an important city. ?Its just an overgrown municipality, but its no Chicago or L.A.,? she would say.

More ominously for Rao, who was married to a caucasian, were the glares they would be subjected to when out in public as an inter-racial couple. For all its southern charm, Atlanta was certainly not cosmopolitan.

With such being the repute of the land, the early Indian migrants to Georgia treaded on ?unchartered territory.? Far away from their motherland they would have to brave a country ?foreign? in every sense of the word.

Talking with these pioneers, two distinct impressions emerge of how Indians were received. From one perspective, there were the remnants of the segregation that managed to taint the experience of some of our early Indian Atlantans. Dr. Manocha remembers an incident from 1965, when he and his wife were driving back to Georgia from New Orleans, and they had to make a restroom stop. ?I was handed the key for the ?colored? bathroom,? he now recalls with amusement, even though at the time, he said, it was humiliating ? that an entire segment of the population was being treated as second class citizens, and that he was categorized as one of them.

Mrs. Manocha, who had a Masters degree, also experienced such bigotry. She had been interviewing for a teacher?s position and was being repeatedly rejected even in schools that had a definite need. When confronted, one interviewer even ventured to say that he wouldn?t appoint her because she would be bringing ?foreign influence? into the school.

Similarly, there were incidents, though isolated, in the ?60s where dark skinned Indians were denied service in restaurants.

On the other, more pervasive side, most early Indians had nothing but high praise for how warmly they were welcomed and embraced by their coworkers and neighbors. According to Mr. Bhargave, ?Georgians had to make as much an adjustment to accommodate us, as we had to, to acclimate ourselves. However, most were very polite and understanding and went out of their way to make us feel comfortable.? Niranjan Sampat, who came to Atlanta in 1967 to pursue a MBA degree, and has made it home since then, said that he never directly experienced any discrimination or bigotry. ?In fact, I always felt that my professional progress was smoother and faster than my peers, right from the early days.?

Most of the pioneers we interviewed pointed out that the first wave of immigrants were primarily professionals ? scientists and engineers, many of whom were working on their post graduate and even doctorate degrees. This, according to them, was the reason for the high regard in which Indians were held among locals.

The Rigors of Pioneering

The pioneering Indians had a daunting challenge. ?The East is East, the West is West, and never the twain shall meet,? so prophesied Rudyard Kipling over a century ago. Now these pioneers were set out prove Kipling wrong by merging their Eastern ways into their new Western home.

The challenges were many. To begin with, they had to contend with a whole new diet that was foundationally different, and not to mention religiously out-of-bounds for many of the avowed vegetarians. Growing up in the land of chai and rich spices, one can only imagine the shock to the Indian palate that the typical local fare of bologna sandwiches would inflict. To boot, vegetarianism was a practice unheard of in a land steeped in the tradition of Bar-B-Q.

As Mr. Jagan Bhargave puts it, ?Georgia was a typical steak and potato state, where the concept of vegetarianism was totally strange. On top of that, the bland food was very hard to relish. There was nothing available for the Indian taste buds.? Dr. Om Puri who was also amongst the first of us to arrive here observed that in the 60s, even a Mexican restaurant was out of question. ?Chinese was the only ethnic food you could find?, says Dr. Puri.

The ?old timers? would well heed us to drop to our knees and thank our lucky stars that today we have an Indian grocery store in just about every suburb of Atlanta. There was a time there were none ? and the early Indians propelled by the power of their palates ordered Indian groceries by mail? all the way from New York. But, even that was a step ahead. Mrs. Girija Vijay who came to Atlanta with husband Dr. K. K. Vijay in 1965, recalls that a bunch of Indians across the East coast would join together to order a shipment of groceries from Pathak Condiments in London, England ?And the sarees would have to be ordered from Hari Leela of Hong Kong!!? she added.

In the same vein, Dr. Majmudar remembers that many would have relatives in India ship a big box of groceries. ?It was pure joy to open that box,? he mentioned with distinct enthusiasm.

The lack of traditional Indian produce and spices didn?t hinder the young students from forging lives in America. Mr. Bhragave remembers, ?The Indian-food starved students, including myself, found some loving and caring bhabis to come to the rescue. My wife, Suman, joined this unique group following our marriage in 1967. These ladies found some innovative ways to satisfy our appetites for Indian food, such as using yellow split peas to make daal, and Bisquick to make Gulab-jamuns!

When Raj Shah opened the first Indian grocery store in Atlanta in 1971 by Raj Shah at Peachtree Road in midtown, it was a godsend. ?It was like going to the temple! The fragrance of achaar was tantalizing,? recalls Dr. Manocha. Similarly many remember fondly the Calcutta Restaurant that started in 1973, as the first Indian restaurant in Atlanta.

Besides the everyday ?food? issue, challenges of assimilation abounded in just about all spheres of life. Steep learning curves, culture clash, accent and communication hurdles all posed problems. ?Everything was a learning experience ? from going to the bank and post office to finding your way around,? noted Dr. Yogesh Joshi, one of the early Atlanta Indians.

To begin with, the disparity in technology and modern conveniences between India and the U.S. was huge in those times. An Indian immigrant coming today is very much at home here, now that the world is turning into the much-hyped ?global village?. Back then, even rudimentary things such as an escalator and revolving doors were ?firsts? for Indians. Not stepping in two-at-a-time into a revolving door may seem like common sense, but to a newly arrived Indian who, to begin with, was inundated with sensory overload of all kinds, and who was used to crowding in local buses and trains back home, such presence of mind would be expecting much.

Many such embarrassing predicaments came about, not because of lack of any native intellect or common sense, but simply because things were different! Dr. Joshi elaborates by recounting an experience from his very early days in the U.S. On a particularly slow July 4th weekend at the hospital where he was working, he set out to get a snack at the vending machine. He did manage to get himself a carton of chocolate milk, but found himself fumbling with it, not quite sure whether to tear it or to pull at it. It was a security guard who happened to be in the room who sensed his predicament and offered, ?Here, doc, let me open it for you!?

Dr. Bhagirath Majmudar shared another such humorous story that was making the rounds in those days. An Indian ordered tea at a fast food shop and was handed hot water along with the tea bag and couple packs of sugar. After some contemplation, he tore open the tea bag and proceeded to pour it into the hot water. Observing this, the kind attendant mentioned that actually the whole tea bag needed to be dipped into the water and then stirred. He was given a new glass of hot water and the tea bag as well. This time our gentleman followed instructions and dipped the tea bag in the water? only to be followed by the two packs of sugars - all intact and unopened ? as well!

Joking aside, there were graver issues that the early migrants faced. Chief among them were the acute displacement and loneliness. Coming from crowded cities and joint families back home, the Indians were now mostly alone at home, or at best a couple.

Mrs Girija Vijay recounts how in her first month in the USA she hardly interacted with anyone besides her husband, let alone seeing another Indian.

Today, immigrating to America is a ?piece of cake?. Most of us are acclimated to the system and procedures and have an enviable network of friends and family. However, when Lal Sachdeva came to Atlanta in 1969, he had only himself to rely on. He did not know a single soul; all he knew was that he had been offered a job at a company called Southern Engineering. At the airport, he wasn?t sure where to go. Due to poor communication channels, he wasn?t aware of his living arrangements. With only six dollars in his pocket, Sachdeva remembers that he felt like crying, as he simply did not know what to do or where to go, at least until the next morning. ?I had never felt this lost or alone in my life. Sitting at the airport, all I could think of is the relative comfort of my hometown of Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh.?

The loneliness was further aggravated by the displacement. Many of the first migrants came here by traveling for weeks on a ship and America was literally world?s apart. When they came, they were often disconnected from their families for weeks and months at end. And then too, the token communication would come in the form of letters. Long-distance calling wasn?t exactly practicable during those days.

Today, not only are we continually connected to our loved ones back home, but are also able to fully immerse ourselves in the land that we left behind - via the wonderful World Wide Web. With just a few clicks we can access the remotest of India?s newspapers!

All this is in striking contrast from the early days. When Dr. K. K. and Mrs. Girija Vijay came in 1965, there were hardly any phones in Kota, the small Rajasthani town that they came from. They remember that in order to convey any urgent message to their family in Kota, they would first have to call their friend in New Delhi, who would then attempt to call Kota over couple days.

When not thinking of back home, the challenges facing the pioneers here had their own unique flavor. There was often this feeling of ?a fish out of water.? Mr. Bhargave explains, ?In spite of the efforts by the locals to extend to us, the fact remained that they were not accustomed to foreigners. Our ladies would be starred at for wearing sarees. Indians were new and different to them. This meant that we were always on our toes ? having to explain and prove ourselves every step of the way.?

A community takes root

Despite these odds, Indians did venture into Georgia.

In the formative years of the early 60s, the entire ?community? would often meet at individuals? homes. Manocha remembers that Jagan Bhargave and the Late Raj Chawla had a home at what used to be Williams Street (now the downtown connector runs over it!). ?It seems like every Indian had a standing invitation to their place.? Similarly the house of Dr. K. K. Vijay and Mrs. Girija Vijay, next to the Piedmont Park was another popular hangout for Indians.

As more Indians started trickling in, meetings proposing a formal organization were often held at these residences. As a result, the India Club of Georgia Tech was conceived in the late 60s as the first informal organization representing the community. The rationale behind forming the organization around the University was two fold. A large portion of the early Indian immigrants was students. But more importantly, aligning with the University meant being able to access and use many of its facilities ? for meetings and special Indian movie screenings, among others.

It was not until 1971, while collecting funds for a famine in Bengal, that they were told that a registered, non-profit status was needed to formally collect funds. This gave rise to the first formal organization in Atlanta, the Indian American Cultural Association (IACA) That year, it had a little over 100 members ? which constituted practically all of the community. ?Even with the small numbers, we were successful in raising thousands of dollars worth of cash, medicine, and other supplies to aid the victims,? asserts Mr. Bhargave.

For the first few years, IACA remained as merely a fundraising organization, and only in 1975 did it first start serving as the social organization that it is now. The first president was Dr. P. Venugopal Rao and the chairman was the Late Raj Chawla.

Commenting on the contrast from then to now, Bhargave remarked that when it came to seeking office, ?We were all very modest and reluctant. We had no elections, just an honorary system. People would push each other to accept the offices for IACA.?

By far, the most striking characteristic of the early community was the immense solidarity and camaraderie they felt for fellow Indians. Meeting an Indian ? any Indian was a privilege and a joy in this alien land. The religions they practiced, the regions they were from in India, and the languages they spoke had no bearing on them, because in this new country they were all from the ?same place?, with similar high hopes, and a common drive for success.

According to Dr. Manocha, ?There were no regional distinctions such as Gujarati or Punjabi or South Indian or Bengali. All we really saw each other as were Indians. Meeting a new Indian was such a privilege and a delight. My wife would never know whom I would be bringing home for dinner. But she was always welcoming.?

Such solidarity was alive and thriving even as late as 1977 when Raman Patel came to Atlanta. Soon after moving, Mr. Patel was hankering to make acquaintance of another Indian soul. He looked up the Cobb county phone book for other Patels, but to his surprise, couldn?t find any. Then he decided to try other common Indian last names, and that is how he stumbled upon Dr. Prakash Desai in Mableton. He cold-called Dr. Desai and introduced himself saying that he was looking to make some Indian friends. To this, Dr. Desai replied, ?I don?t make friends over the phone! Come on over for dinner!? Such stories abound of how the early migrants made life long friendships ? just on the sole binding tie that they shared an Indian nationality.

?We were all Indians only, regardless of wherever in India we originated from. Unity and solidarity were the outstanding characteristics of the Indian community,? added Dr. P. V. Rao.

With such being the foundation of the community, it comes as no surprise that IACA played a crucial role in the growing community in the 70s and 80s. As the children of the first wave of immigrants started growing up, the elders realized the need to instill our culture and heritage in them. A need for a physical center ? a place the community could call its own - was now acutely felt. With that goal in mind, efforts began for fundraising for the purchase of a IACA building.

The Ramayan Ballet was the first such fundraising program. Held at the Center Stage Theater in August of 1975, it was primarily marketed to non-Indians. The Indian community was still too small to generate big numbers. The level of enthusiasm was such that all the participants practiced for about one-and-a-half to two years for this program! The success of the program can be vouched for by the fact that the local community took note! The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which in those days used to publish a weekly magazine supplement, featured the program on the cover of the magazine, along with a cover story titled, ?Indians in Atlanta.?

The ?70s thus saw the transition of Indians from a group, to what now could be called a community. The AJC article estimated a little over 1000 of us in the area at the time. The solidarity and singularity though, was still very much intact. Regional affiliations and organizations had still not afflicted the harmony. ?In those times we still knew everyone,? proclaimed Mrs. Girija Vijay.

With the goal of a proper facility for IACA still at hand, much remained to be done in the area of fundraising. The enterprising folks at the helm saw a distinct opportunity in the popular annual local tradition of those times ? the Piedmont Arts Festival. In an otherwise conservative city, this was one festival that pulled the kind of crowd that was cosmopolitan and adventurous, and not afraid to try new experiences. ?Perfect? thought the folks at IACA, and started a booth of Indian food at the Festival.

With this, started an annual IACA tradition that lasted from 1978 to 1982. It was not only highly successful in raising funds, but is also fondly remembered by many who participated. This Fall festival that lasted for nine days, truly brought the community together. Only three items were sold at the booth ? samosas, kabobs, and mango lassi ? but its popularity increased such that in 1980, the IACA booth received the ?Best Food? award. The Vijay residence, which was close to the Piedmont Park, would bear the brunt of the cooking. Later this ?privilege? went to other homes such as that of Raman Patel who was President of IACA in 1982.

At its peak, the Festival would help IACA collect close to $20,000! But more importantly, ?We were having fun,? exclaimed Bhargave. ?There was communal bonding; there were no conflicts.?

With passing years and our growing numbers, our identification with our new home country began to mature. The first wave of migrants, who, for a while, held on to the transient or temporary status, slowly but steadily gave in to America?s embrace. As their children went to girl scouts and boy scouts, and later to high school proms, the parents realized that they were growing American children. Thus the ties strengthened.

For some it happened sooner than others. Dr. P. V. Rao poignantly recalls the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. ?When Kennedy was shot I was still in school at Eugene, Oregon. The event shook our lives. It was not just an American tragedy. We felt it as a personal loss. After hearing the news, I came home from school only to see our little six-year-old girl crying, because in her words, ?someone shot our President.? At that moment we had become Americans forever.?

Regardless of when it happened, such transformation from an identity as an Indian only to an Indian-American, was evident in many of the first wave of immigrants who now had deep roots in the country.

As with the rest of the nation, Atlanta saw a tremendous influx of Indian immigrants in the 80s and 90s. Slowly, the community started changing from purely professionals to a mix of entrepreneurs, and others. Indians took on to small business enterprise like bees to flowers. By then, the Patels had already started carving a niche for themselves in the Lodging industry.

The tech revolution that took full bloom in the 1990s further boosted the stock of Atlanta?s Indians. The young twenty-something Indian professionals came, and from day one, started drawing salaries that made the whole notion of ?struggling to settle down? a quaint one. The old timers who had worked for years to attain their American dream saw these young whiz kids come and buy brand new cars almost from day one.

A look at where

we are today

The community today is indeed a far cry from the time Jagan Bhargave set foot on this land. Today, Atlanta boasts of at least two-dozen Indian restaurants - not to mention another dozen or so that keep coming and going. These restaurants cater to every regional bent from North Indian to South Indian and from Gujarati to Hyderabadi, and even Indian Chinese! Likewise, the over 100 retail stores in the metro area ensure that we can practically duplicate any Indian consumer experience from back home.

And what to say of the proliferation of regional Indian affiliations? If anything, the pet peeve of the times is that ?We have way too many associations!? Today, we

have Indian associations defined not only by the states that we came from, but also the language, religion, caste, sub caste, and even the house deities of our families! Regional Bengali, Tamil or Telugu conferences generate a turnout of thousands. And the Gujaratis? Well, just the Patels listed in the Atlanta phone book probably amount to more than the entire community of the first decade, from 1962 to 1972.

The early immigrants dared to leave the familiarity and comfort of their birthplace and came to a truly foreign country. Today our unceasing growth along with technology and media has helped us almost recreate our motherland here.

We owe a great deal to those forerunners who paved the path for us. They left India to build lives for themselves in a new country during a very tumultuous time in America?s social history. The over 60,000 Indians living throughout Georgia owe a great deal to these industrial and brave individuals who laid the foundations on which our community thrives today. r


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