A passage to America

A memorable trip across the seas, sixty-plus years ago

October 04, 2016 12:54 am | Updated 01:00 am IST

The year was 1955. As a 21-year-old I was plodding away to acquire a Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, when one day one of my professors, Professor B.H. Iyer, called me and told me about a research position in the United States. His friend, Professor Eugene Lieber of DePaul University, Chicago, was looking for a research assistant for a project. Professor Iyer told me he could recommend me if I was interested. The research assistantship would give me a modest stipend and it also had the provision to register for a master’s degree with tuition fee waiver.

Certainly I was interested. I already had a master’s degree. So what, one more master’s degree would not hurt. What was more, I could continue there or in another university for a Ph.D. This was an opportunity not to be missed. Then as now, to get admission to an American university was a long drawn-out and arduous process. Admission as a student with assured financial assistance was even more difficult. Here all these were being offered to me on a silver platter, so to say.

I contacted my parents and my father readily gave his blessings. So acceptance letters were sent and preparations started, enthusiastically assisted and encouraged by my fellow research scholars. Passport and visa were applied for. (Incidentally, the fee for a U.S. student visa, as recorded in my passport, was $2, and the local currency equivalent was Rs.9-12-0). Winter clothing and other accessories were acquired in Commercial Street in Bangalore.

Then the all-important matter of the fare was addressed. All my education and living expenses so far were funded by my father, and my passage to America would also be financed by him, no matter what strain it would put on his resources — which were solely based on his meagre agricultural income. Fully aware of this constraint I searched for the most economical mode of travel. Air travel would be too costly. In those days one could go to the U.S. by ship much cheaper. This option is not available today: there are no passenger ships plying the oceans of the world now.

There was a further choice available to me: journey by a passenger ship versus that by a cargo ship. Yes indeed, cargo ships or freighters in those days would take a few, not more than half a dozen or so, paying passengers. This was considerably less costly than regular passenger ships. So that was the route I chose. The prominent travel agents of those days, Ram Mohan & Co. booked for me a ticket from Cochin to New York, by a freighter belonging to the Isthmian Lines, which had a series of freighters in their ‘Steel’ series, with names such as SS Steel Voyager, SS Steel Traveller, and so on. I don’t remember the actual fare, but it was a few hundred rupees.

The start

So on January 11, 1956, I bid farewell to my parents, who had only the vaguest of ideas about where I was going and for what purpose. With staunch faith in God they gave their blessings. I travelled to Cochin accompanied by my uncle who was later to become my father-in-law. The shipping agents in Cochin put me in my ship, the SS Steel Designer, which was to be my home for the next month and more.

It was what was called a hopping voyage, being a cargo ship. The ship anchored at several ports on the way, where loading or unloading was to be done. Some stops were for less than a day, where no permission to visit the shore was given. At other ports where the halt was for more than a day, the immigration authorities would give a temporary permit for shore visit while the ship was in port.

On this ship, as far as I could remember there were only six paying passengers. Three of us were Indian students. Besides me this included Jacob from Cochin, who was coming to Chicago like me, to study business management in another university, and Venkitaraman (name assumed: I cannot remember the actual name) from Madras going to another city to study ceramic technology. There was an elderly couple who was taking a round- the-world vacation. They had joined the ship on the West coast of America and were going to New York on the East coast. The sixth passenger was a colourful young Greek-American named Steve Papidopolos (name assumed, for the same reason). By profession he was an ice-cream vendor in New York City. Having saved sufficient money in the summer, he would take a vacation during the rest of the year, going to different lands including this kind of around- the-world voyage. This was not his first experience with freighters. He was a valuable friend and guide to instruct us, innocents abroad, about the ways of ships and harbours and about life in the U.S. in general.

The food

The cabin the three of us Indians shared was good. With my later experience of other ship cabins, our cabin in SS Steel Voyager was really first class. In the dining hall we had our food along with the ship’s officers. We three Indians had one table and the tree Americans, another. The food on board, how shall I put it, was different from anything that I had known before. Needless to say, it was non-vegetarian. Only Venkitaraman had a problem with it. For the two of us who were die-hard and seasoned non-vegetarians as we claimed to be, the problem was no less.

Breakfast was fine. Bread-butter-jam-eggs were universal. We could afford to neglect the unfamiliar bacon and ham and sausages. Lunch and dinner were another kettle of fish. The first day, for lunch for the main course we had beef steak, which I had heard about but not seen, let alone eaten. For the ignorant, steak is a slab of beef cut off from the back of the cow, about 4 inch X 3 inch X 1 inch in size, with the blood dripping when fresh. It is cooked by grilling on an open fire to the required specification. The specifications come in three grades: rare, medium and well-done. Well-done means just that, grilled till the meat is reasonably well cooked. Medium is half way to that, the meat being not quite well cooked. Rare, the most popular grade, is meat which is kept over the fire for the barest possible time so that the blood is still dripping. As I remember, the dish served to me on ship could have been any of these, not being knowledgeable in such matters. It was edible if not delicious.

That was how it was on the first day in the ship’s dining hall and that was how it was for the rest of the voyage and, indeed, for most of the rest of my stay in the U.S. In course of time I came to like the aforementioned bacon and ham and sausages and steak and most other animals. My culinary taste was and is universal and non-fussy.

The route

A word about the ports of call. After Cochin the ship briefly halted at Mangalore. Shore leave was not permitted. The next port was Bombay, where it stayed for two days, enough time to go on shore and visit relatives. Next, across the Arabian Sea, around the Horn of Africa to the Gulf of Eden. There the Steel Voyager halted for a day at Djibouti, which is located between the present-day Eritrea and Egypt.

Then the voyage continued up the Red Sea to the Suez Canal. The southernmost tip of the canal is Port Suez and the canal stretches about 200 km up to the Mediterranean port of Port Said in the north. At Suez the ship was taken over by the canal pilots, who alone are authorised to navigate ships on the canal. The journey, south to north, was completed in about a day. For us this happened during night and I retain no memory of the sights on either side of the canal. At Port Said the ship entered the Mediterranean Sea and proceeded west till it entered the Atlantic Ocean, past the Rocks of Gibralter. It was during the voyage over the placid Mediterranean that I experienced sea sickness for the first time. I was confined to the cabin for the entire period, a few days, that we were on the Mediterranean. I must have seen the rocks of Gibralter, but have no memory of it.

For the next few weeks we were on the wide Atlantic Ocean. The infinite ocean all around and the infinite sky above. There was no sea-sickness anymore. I always had a fascination for travel on water. I enjoyed the Atlantic. Landfall was at Halifax, Canada. My passport has an entry which says, 'Shore leave while ship in port, Canada immigration , Halifax, Feb. 6, 1956', which makes it one month and one week, for almost half way around the world, less than what Christopher Columbus took.

I was destined to complete my round-the-world trip, after a brief stop-over of five years in America, by continuing the journey, also by ship, from San Francisco to Bombay, where I landed on March 23, 1961. That is another story.


The arrival

I stepped on American soil, or rather sheets of ice, on a blistery winter day. It was biting cold. The cartilages of the ears and nose became brittle and felt as though they will break off, if touched. Guided by Steve, I made my first purchase on the American continent — a nylon cap with a flap to cover the ears. The voyage continued to the next port of call, Boston, Massachussets. Venkitaraman left the ship here.

We had our immigration clearance done in Boston. My passport says: "Admitted, Boston Mass, February 9, 1956." But I was not ready to leave the ship yet, which was to be at New York the next day. My ship entered the New York harbour on a misty foggy winter day.

I vaguely remember chugging past the Lady with the Torch, the Statue of Liberty. It is customary to go sentimental at this stage, recalling the millions who have moved past this statue dreaming of a new life. For me, blessed with no sentiment and no historical sense, it was just another country and another life.


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