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Dhaka was in the grip of martial law. The East Pakistani Bengalis were asking for autonomy from the dominant non-Bengali military government of Pakistan, and there were mass protests on the streets. The peaceful protesters were shot at by the army, which also imposed harsh curfews off and on to keep the citizens on the edge. Dhaka, being the capital of East Pakistan, bore the brunt of the military oppression. I had come to Dhaka airport in a hiatus of deceptive calm, for the curfew was off now. I was to fly to Karachi, from where Pan American Airways would take me to New York via Beirut, Frankfurt and London. (There was no direct flight then.) I was sad. I was leaving behind Jahanara, the girl I loved. We had had a hurried wedding just a week ago during a half-hour curfew break. There was no marital bliss in our lot. To compound my problems, I had spurned an arranged bride before my marriage.
I had no choice but to depart now. I had graduated from Dhaka Medical College in February 1968 and then had completed a year of grueling training as a junior physician. But being a Bengali, my prospect was uncertain in Pakistan because of the political upheavals. Amid this, I had gotten an internship at St John’s Hospital in Yonkers, New York. St John’s had sent me an airline ticket, and a telegram that said, “You are late already. Your position will be given away if you don’t join us immediately.” If I missed this chance, I may never be able to go to America for higher education.
I had stayed silent about my leaving. “Go as quietly as you can,” one of my well-connected professors had warned me. Some student activists had been jailed, and a past president of the Dhaka Medical College Student Union, who was being watched by the government, had surreptitiously left the country. I had once worked with him to publish an annual literary magazine. Was I marked too?
As I stood at the passport queue at the departure gate of Dhaka Airport, I did not see any Bengali passengers. They all were speaking Urdu or Punjabi. I let some passengers go ahead of me, and I quietly prayed for my safe exit. That made me calm. Then I handed my passport to an emigration official. “You are going to America?” he was surprised, and asked, “Why?” I said I was going for medical training. “That’s strange,” he added, “we go to England for higher education, not to the US.” I replied that I had got a US scholarship. He stamped my passport and let me proceed. I was relieved.
Once Pan Am took off from Karachi Airport and I saw the endless blue sky I felt free; I was out of the reach of the military rulers.
From London, Pan Am crossed the vast Atlantic and reached John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. My flight was delayed in London because of bad weather, and the city was dark and foggy when I left. As the plane arrived in New York, my mind must have been too occupied to look at the scene outside. But when I walked into the JFK lounge, I saw something through the glass panels that transfixed me: falling snowflakes. I looked around, and the sea of lights of the city revealed that whiteness had blanketed the entire ground. Growing up in a tropical country, I knew about snow only from books and pictures. But they conveyed nothing of the splendor I was viewing.
Then I witnessed a different world in the crowded lounge when I came to myself. People of all colors and shapes who spoke languages that I did not understand. A black porter had already checked my luggage tag. He was amiable, and complained about coming blizzard. I barely understood his thick accent and I imagined he had the same problem with mine. This was the first time I had encountered an African-American. Besides his color and accent he was just like me. If the American whites considered him “inferior,” as I had read, would I be considered inferior too?
My hospital had planned to pick me up according to the Pan Am flight schedule, but since the schedule had fallen by the wayside, no one was there for me. What was I to do? I was cold and chilly despite my sweater and coat. And I was tired and hungry. Pan Am gave me some supper on the plane, but the food was tasteless to me and I barely ate. It was close to midnight. After leaving the uncertainty of Dhaka, I was not expecting this kind of uncertainty in an unknown land.
A white man in the lounge was glancing at me; I must have looked lost. I went to him and asked, “Where could I get a taxi to go to Yonkers?” I told him I was an intern at St John’s Hospital.
“This must be your first time here,” he said. “Yonkers is thirty miles away, and no cab will go there in this godforsaken weather. You should call your hospital from the payphone.” (Cellphones were still in the realm of science fiction.)
I had a few dollars and coins with me, and I had kept the hospital address and telephone number. I put coins in the payphone and dialed.
A pleasant voice answered. “St John’s operator,” she said, “which extension, please?”
“May I speak to Dr Flokes, the internship director?” I said, my voice was tense.
“His office is closed now,” she replied. “I can leave him a note.” I should have known that he would not be in the office at that hour.
I informed the operator who I was and where I was now. She immediately sounded alarmed. She asked me to give her the number of the payphone and said, “Hang up the telephone and stay there until someone calls you back. I will get hold of Dr Flokes.”
I did as she asked. I fervently prayed that she would find Dr Flokes for me. In fifteen minutes or so – it seemed longer though – Dr Flokes rang.
“Do not try to get out of the airport lounge,” he warned. “This has been a bitter winter and there is a forecast of heavier snowfall. I have good snow tires in my car and I will come to pick you up.” I had no idea what he meant by snow tires, but I was glad that he was coming.
About two hours later, a man with a heavy coat and fur-like cap approached me.
“Fazlur Rahman?” he said. “I am Dr Flokes.” Somehow he had recognized me from my appearance. “Sorry, I am late. A one-hour drive took twice as long. Hazardous roads.”
As soon as I stepped outside with him, I was hit by a sharply cold wind and snow. He opened his car door for me and put my suitcase in the trunk. He then turned on his car heater at the highest temperature. His courtesy and friendliness surprised me. I was not used to this kind of treatment from my superiors.
He drove cautiously. Snow kept falling in droves and his windshield wiper ran fast. Despite his caution, his car swerved a few times, and I was scared. I should have sat in the airport until morning, I thought. But as soon as we came out of the city, the landscape looked magical in the street lights. White snow had covered the grounds, houses and trees. And the snow-laden tree branches hung low, creating shadowy figures; they seemed to be creatures from another planet.
At last we reached the hospital. When I stood on its entrance-hall floor, I could not believe how clean and shiny it was. I felt awkward walking on it with my wet shoes. What a difference from my Dhaka Medical College Hospital!
Flokes then took me to the intern’s quarter; its tidiness also impressed me. “Sleep the rest of the night,” he said. “You don’t need to get up in the morning. I will tell you about your schedule later.”
By now I was bone-tired. I forgot my hunger and I did not even mention it to Flokes. I changed my clothes and collapsed on the bed. But sleep wouldn’t come. I was wide awake and thoughts ran through my mind. I kept missing the loved ones I had left behind, especially, Jahanara. Her anguished face when I departed floated before my eyes.
“I will go back as soon after I finish my internship,” I said to myself. “By that time things will be better in Pakistan.”
How terribly wrong I was on both counts. Little did I know that East Pakistan would split from Pakistan to become Bangladesh, and that my own life would be intertwined with that of America for the next forty-seven years!