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EMALAYALEE SPECIAL

Malayalee Nurses' Maiden Journey to America, in the early 1970s (Elcy Yohannan Sankarathil)

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An elegant mansion in Kerala came on the TV screen as I lay on my soft down-couch. "She is beautiful," went the commercial for Asian Paint. And my memories flew back to a time when villages in Kerala could not boast of such expensive dwellings. From such a village went two seventeen-year-old girls to New Delhi to study Nursing. Susy and Padma each had six or seven siblings, all below them. Their admission to nursing course was due to the efforts of their neighbor Krishna Pillai, who was in the Air Force, and it was with him that the little frock-clad girls went to Delhi; with brimming eyes, the two families and  a goodly host of their kin saw them off.

The stipend was Rs 7 per month. The girls saved from that, for home. In the sophisticated world of the Indian capital, the girls grew in strength and vitality, and in grace and gracefulness. The simple girls wizened up fast and became smart and worldly-wise. When after school and training they went home before entering salaried employment, they borrowed from their friends and bought gifts for home-cloths for parents, steel tiffin-carriers for brothers, little things for girls. Soon after the brand-new nurses started work, a certain recruiting agent showed them the prospect of emigrating to America. Their parents and siblings had mixed reactions-the village-folk had never heard of anyone going to America. The paltry salary, supplemented with contributions from home, was handed over to the agent. Borrowed money paid for a couple of brocade sarees. And for the maiden flight, hairdo at the beauty parlor.

The first group of recruits consisted of nine young nurses. They were accompanied by Ahar?n, whose fee was the first two months' salary. All were unmarried, but some had boyfriends in the Army/Airforce, so the pang of parting was intense. Full of golden dreams, Aharon's flock took off from Delhi airport. Their Boeing 737 landed at New York's JFK Airport on an evening in February 1971. When they came out of the plane, snow everywhere. Used to the cold of Delhi, they had brought along their sweaters. Customs inspection was a breeze, and, as they carried their luggage and emerged from the airport building, waiting for them was Aharon's friend Joshua, with an old van. It was too small for the nine of them, all in nice silk sarees that were getting messed up; but not minding that discomfort, nor the length of the road, they took in with wonderment the passing views. By nightfall, the van pulled up at the door of an apartment building.

"You wait here," said Aharon in Malayalam and went and knocked on a door. A boy of about eight years opened the door and was scared to see a vanful of people. He said his mommy and daddy were both at work. Aharon told the girls: " Come. Go inside. You stay here. No problem. I shall see you tomorrow." And he was gone. A little later, a telephone rang and the boy answered. It was from his mother. He was heard describing what happened.: "Aharon uncle has brought a lot of aunties." Then, as instructed by his mom, he passed the phone to the guests. It was Stella who happened to take it. As she held it to her ear, there was heard an ear-popping shout, rude, uncultured, animal: " Who did you ask before coming into my house? Get out of there before I get there." The girls wondered where they would go at that time of the night. They had not yet changed out of the two-day-old clothes, nor had a drop of water; they sat on their trunks and munched down the chips they had with them. By midnight the apartment owners arrived, together; they saw pieces of luggage all over the living room, with the frightened girls perched on them. Without so much as a word to them, the queen and her consort marched into the dining room and ate their late supper. The owners' resentment was audible from the sound of clattering plates. Only when they banged shut the bedroom door did the uninvited guests breathe a sigh of relief. They soon dozed off, hungry and thirsty and unwashed, and sitting right there on the luggage boxes.

In the morning, landlady Mary was heard talking to Aharon on the telephone; she was giving him quite a piece of her mind. As the helpless company awoke to this insult, Mary stormed into their midst and served an ultimatum in Malayalam: "We are stepping out. Call that fool and see that you vacate the place before we get back. Here's a dime; there's a telephone booth outside. Use this 'paise' to call your guy." The couple went off to work, and the son to his school; when the silent but sympathetic husband looked back in pity and kindliness, the wife went off at him: " Don't get so excited on seeing this bunch young women! Come on, come on." 

Aharon arrived by 10 'O clock. "I am looking for a room for you, may take a couple of days. You got to adjust here till then. I shall talk to Mary. Be nice and polite and tactful; no matter what she tells you, don't answer her back." He had brought a 10 lb bag of rice. "Cook this and sit here." It did not occur to him that it might help to explain the situation a bit to the new immigrants. He went away. The phone was in the locked bedroom; there was no way of contacting the outside world, except by going to the telephone booth outside. Snow was falling heavily. Unfamiliar place, no acquaintances. The ladies hurried to use the bathroom by turn for the morning ablutions and they changed their clothes, folding the used ones back into the trunks. Grabbing a cooking pot, they cooked the rice that Aharon had brought and, without draining it in a colander, decided to ingest it as gruel (kanji). For side-dish, they chopped up some greens they saw in the refrigerator, taking it for some kind of cabbage; without grated coconut or onions, they used but salt and chilly powder to cook it. When the shrew returned and found the green for her salad missing, she flew into a fury. Only a few days later did the girls learn that it was lettuce and not cabbage.

Aharon talked to Mary, and she relented and even made some concessions: when she was home, they could use her phone, but in under three minutes and at a dime per call; also, she would give them a sheet of writing paper for a penny and an envelope for two cents. That was OK; the ladies had some money, the allowable $ 8 from foreign exchange at Bombay airport. They wrote home, Aharon buying stamps. That was some relief. Stella soon got into Mary's good books; she starting helping with the chores: washing dishes, cleaning, cooking. After three days and three nights of grief and dark uncertainty, and insults from the landlady, Aharon announced that he had found a room, and all except Stella moved into that place. It was an unfurnished studio apartment, all bare. They spread their sarees on the old linoleum floor and slept, long and peacefully. Looking out the window the next morning, they saw an old mattress put out for garbage pickup. Yes, it was there, it was real, godsend. They went and, like ants hauling a grain of rice, they pulled and pushed the dirty old mattress all the way up to their third-floor apartment. They would use it for  quite a while, sleeping on it by turns. The apartment super mercifully gave them some cooking utensils and dinnerware. Whoever was in Aharon's good offices got whatever little things she wanted, and these little flavors trickled down to the others.

The pioneers had many streams to cross, but the first one was getting hired. An endorsement was required for applying for any position, but Aharon would get it from the Director of a Nursing Homeor Hospital. It was going to cost $ 600 per signature! Another stipulation of Aharon's was that as they                                                                                      got employed, they would purchase Life Insurance for minimum $10,000. Aharon made them sign a contract to this effect. He procured the licenses from a Bronx hospital. Meanwhile, Stella's hard work paid off; Mary was now kindly disposed toward her. Only, she told her nice husband: don't go for small talk with Stella! The girls started going out to look for work, all together. One day they came to an elegant building that said HOME. Some other alphabets were there, but the girls could not read them because they were covered with creeping ivy. Yes, it must be a Nursing Home, figured the girls. And in they trooped. "May I help you?" the receptionist asked. They introduced themselves as fresh nursing graduates and requested to be hired. "We only take the dead," came the reply. As they went outside, they looked at the building's name again. It was a funeral home!

Pretty soon they found jobs, mostly in Nursing Homes. Wow!  At $ 200 take-home pay every two weeks. That was Rs 1,400,  (the value of a dollar was 7 rupees in India then). Rs 2,800 a month, whereas the average salary a nurse got in India was in the lower three-figure numbers. So Rs. 2,800 a month! And it was only the beginning. At posting, the original group got separated, but they would come together at church and house parties and always maintained their bond.

They soon bought apartments. A car could wait. Only a few Malayalees had personal cars, and they were old, beat-up clunkers. Asking around for a place of worship for them on Sundays, they were told of the interdenominational mass at Union Theological Seminary, Manhattan. Malayalees made it there by bus and train. That fellowship was special. The officiating priest and his deacon had come to NY on Student Visa. It was a high priest (a Cor-Episcopa) from NJ that started that service. The deacon's old Chevy Impala was everybody's succor. He didn't grudge giving his people rides, even taking them to and from the airport.

The pioneer Indian nurses crossed more rivers. They lived frugally and sent money home to Kerala. This sure and steady influx of the dollar saw that the house was renovated. They sent home American stuff. Marriage brokers were busily plying their trade; the American nurses were affectionately advised by their fathers that their own wedding should wait until at least the immediate juniors were all educated/or married off. They wouldn't lose the milk-cow. Some of the ladies decided on their own to postpone the happy event, while most parents openly disapproved of the old flames in the armed forces. Though some married their old lovers, the others got married in Kerala in the conventional 'arranged' way, but relatively late for their years.

After 5 years of growing pains, they were eligible for American citizenship, and most of them grabbed that privilege. Back home, balconied and terraced mansion rose where humble, thatched or tiled dwellings had stood. Those were the days of the great Keralite migration to far-off places. In America, a citizen could sponsor parents and siblings Thus started the steadily thickening stream of Green Card-eligible Indian immigrants. The husbands' folks followed. All that was needed for a qualified nurse to get the American visa was a draft for 1,000 dollars. And, of course, a sponsor letter. The pioneers sponsored their friends back home as well as their relatives. Thus was a second door opened to the new Canaan. The fresh immigrants stayed with the sponsors in their apartments, which became rather crowded for the growing children there. But as time passed and the new arrivals prospered, many of them forgot their way up, even scorning the hands that helped them up. "They only signed a sponsor letter," say some. "They just did their duty, what older siblings are supposed to do. Go to the airport and see how many new immigrants are arriving every day!"  So go their arguments. But for the poor kids! Neglected, not receiving enough attention from their parents. While the mother, having to feed the newcomers as well, sweated at two shifts, finding time to talk to the husband only on their trips to the supermarket. She worked hard, she adjusted, she suffered. In her sacred mission to help her siblings, she forgot to live. Time did not wait, and many of the pioneer nurses in the US got their dividends in the form of ingratitude and insult and injury. 

Today the picture is different. Beautiful mansions, with expensive cars in the driveways, lots of nice clothes. But the veterans ever remember the way things were with them, the way they were, the way they came. Their children did not have today's comforts or educational props, nor ethnic role models of their age, nor any means of religious instruction; but they did okay. The fact is, they did pretty well; they excelled in school, formed good characters, and reached high positions. No matter how tall a tree grows, its leaves will seek for the roots. Even so does the early immigrant's mind nostalgically revisit the old times. Looking back thus, does she see a small but comforting light of peace and satisfaction? Yes. There is not a moment when the bygone paths do not stretch out before the mind's eye. With gratitude and humility and contentment, and with faith in providence, in the midst of any amount of plenty may such a one rest assured that the life has been fruitful. 

Susi lives in New York, Padma lives in Houston. They had constant contact for a while in the earlier days, but life's encumbrances kept them away from contacting each other. Now their life is almost centered at home, retired, children grown and married and gone to their own nests. Even the earlier dependants forgot their first abode, forgot the base. That is life! Every one cares for only their own life; only a few would  sacrifice their lives for others. Experience is the best teacher. At last, there is not much longer life to live and the days and nights are spent reminiscing the best and the worst, the rise and fall, the rights and wrongs. For many, the net value at the end is on the minus side. God is the final refuge. By the time we learn to live, our life is almost over. Use the time wisely and well when you have it, live the life to your satisfaction, doing good to others and pleasing God, Do not give all that you have; keep a little. But have a little compassion, humility, goodness, love and, over all, the fear of God, for God will never leave us!

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