The landlady’s privilege

A young Indian’s apartment-hunting in Chicago, 1956

January 24, 2017 10:15 am | Updated 10:19 am IST

I went to the United States in 1956 as a student to pursue education for a post-graduate degree in Chemistry at De Paul University, Chicago. My professor had arranged accommodation for me at the Chicago International House of the University of Chicago.

This was a wonderful place to live, truly international in nature. The only drawback for me was that it was located on the south side of Chicago and my university was north of downtown Chicago, on West Belden Avenue. It was almost an hour by elevated (EL) train, morning and evening each.

So after about six months the idea of renting an apartment near the university campus occurred in my mind. This had two advantages, saving precious time and the possibility of experimenting with home-cooking at the age of 22. The International House cafeteria was excellent but in those days this did not include Indian cuisine. Indian restaurants which are in plenty in Chicago today were absent to my knowledge in those days.

My routine was that after a hasty breakfast in the morning, rushing to the 63rd street EL station for my hour long ride to Fullerton station, and at noon lunch on a hot dog-with-everything-on-it and an apple at Joe’s hot dog stand in the basement of the Chemistry department. There was no canteen in those days and I was not enterprising enough to go out to a restaurant for lunch.

So one day I went apartment-hunting in the neighbourhood of the university. This was a residential area and the inhabitants were mostly immigrants from Poland with limited working knowledge of English. The side streets were fairly narrow with cars parked on both sides and old three-storied buildings abutting the sidewalk. Some of the buildings had small hand-written cards announcing apartments for rent. All the buildings looked much the same.

I chose one at random, whose owner, according to the card, was Mrs. Szmyrgalski, a respectable Polish name. I rang the bell gingerly. There was no response for a full minute. I was about to give up and walk away when the door opened a crack, protected by the door-chain.

I could see part of the face of an elderly woman who looked at me with deep suspicion. After a long scrutiny she asked something which sounded to me “Ja, was?” I recited my prepared speech, rapidly, lest the lady decided to bang the door in my face.

“Good morning, Mrs. Szmyrgalski, I am Ram, Indian student at the university, I am looking for apartment for rent, I saw this sign on your door”.

I paused expectantly and from the blank expression on the lady’s face I could see that she did not understand a word of what I said. This was not new to me. That was the reaction I got from most people to whom I tried to communicate. I was fairly new in the country and my Mallu accent was conspicuous. However, since I had pointed by my finger at the card on her door the lady understood my intentions if not my speech.

Partially reassured, she removed the chain from the door and opened it about half way. Now I could see my prospective landlady almost in full. She was short, not thin, in a faded dress which reached

halfway down her knees. She had frazzled hair, a not unkind face and a suspicious look. She could have been fifty or seventy or thereabouts.

Now a word of explanation about my name. I am not Ram, never have been. I am Narayana. But during my short stay in this country I had learnt that this was a name most Americans could not pronounce without mutilating. I could pronounce names such as Szmyrgalski with ease, but simple names (to an Indian) such as Narayana or Subrahmaniam or Muralidharan were totally unpronounceable to most natives here.

So I chose a simple monosyllable name for operational purposes which anybody could handle. I could have selected Tom or Dick but I did not want to surrender my Indianness, so Ram it was.

Now coming back to Mrs. S., I could see that she was in deep turmoil, never before having had a strange human being like me with unfamiliar features and pigmentation and speech standing on her doorstep. Hers was clearly a simple white and black world.

Hoping to explain matters, I repeated that I was Indian. To this her response was firm: “You are not Indian.”

I immediately realised my mistake. She knew Indians. All Americans knew Indians. They had feathered headgear, animal skin jackets and painted faces.

To retrieve lost ground, I modified my statement. “I am from India.”

Confusion returned to her face. “Indiana?”

That was when inspiration struck me. This, Chicago, was the city where Swami Vivekananda came way back in 1893 and won over the locals and fellow-delegates with his great speech at the Parliament of the World’s Religions. So, I said, triumphantly, “I am a Hindu.”

Alas, that too did not touch any chord of recognition with Mrs. Szmyrgalski.

She suddenly seemed to have made up her mind. She snatched the incriminating card from the door, said something which sounded to me, “Apartment not available”, and closed the door firmly in my face.

In all fairness to Mrs. Szmyrgalski I should add that her reaction was not due to any ill-will towards me but due to a communication gap. I did continue with my apartment hunting and in due course could find satisfactory accommodation near the university.

(As a research scholar since 1955 at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, the author got a Ph.D. studentship in the U.S. He returned in 1961 with a Ph.D. in Chemistry. After a year in industry, he joined the faculty of the Indian Institute of Technology Madras. He has been engaged in teaching and research, has published hundred-plus research papers, and written a text book of organic chemistry. At 82 today, he reads, occasionally writes, and takes walks on Chennai’s Thiruvanmiyur beach. An account of his journey to the U.S. by ship, 'A Passage to America', was published on Open Page on Oct. 4, 2016. Email: )

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