60 Westward Ho!

 

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I left Maryville with a heavy heart. I caught a divided highway at St. Joseph, skirted Kansas City and caught Route-66 at Joplin with no difficulty. I did not feel like tracking back to Mansfield to see the Ozarks. I thought I could come back some other time; it never happened. I moved forward toward Tulsa and on toward Oklahoma City.

It is almost impossible to come to grips with the size of the land between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean unless one rides a horse, a wagon or an automobile; a train ride would not give the same freedom of movement and intimacy with the land. One of the original U.S. Highways, established in 1926, Route 66, became the most famous and romantic roads in America. It ran from Chicago through Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California, before ending at Los Angeles, covering a total of 2,448 miles.

The story of Route 66 starts over a century earlier when the young United States began to grow westward. The mountain men, in an effort to leave the settled east behind, opened up the unspoiled west to the westward expansion of a nation by their explorations. There were no established trails but the ones the mountain men blazed themselves as they followed the beaver along the traces left by the Native Americans. These old trails were generally all that existed for the wagon trains that followed shortly thereafter. The trails were general courses, where wagons would spread out over a wide area, following a single track only where terrain forced them.

With the gold rush of 1849, thousands of people sought routes to California. From trails such as the Santa Fe Trail and Beale’s Wagon Road across New Mexico and Arizona, a transportation corridor began to take shape. The railroads would follow this corridor a few years later further establishing routes west that would someday become a part of Route 66. The railroad had to follow the contours of the land, avoiding steep grades. The railroad also had to connect sources of water, as the steam engines of those days required substantial water at frequent intervals. As a result, the route was far easier and more gradual than earlier wagon roads had been. Many of the sidings and water stops became communities that would survive into the highway era.

With the emergence of the automobile, the government realized that something would have to be done about the poor road system in America. The Federal Government finally stepped in and made a concerted effort to bring some order and required the states to designate primary roads to be included in a national highway system. These roads would be designated U.S. highways. Cyrus Avery, a businessman from Oklahoma, now known to many as the father of Route 66, was charged with establishing what would become the U.S. Highway System. Avery became one of the strongest supporters of the Chicago to Los Angeles route, a route that he wanted to pass through his home state of Oklahoma.

When Avery took over Route-66 was basically a mishmash of roads, horse-tracks, and wagon paths strung together and paved to make it suitable for automobile traffic. Most of the time, it was a poorly-aligned two-lane highway, one lane in each direction, with no median strip. Every time the highway encountered a town, it meanders through that town – often forming its main street  – stopping at all the traffic lights. Motorists, having driven at 55 mph, would find it difficult to adjust to the lower speed limits as they enter city limits and easily fall victim to the local traffic police waiting in ambush. Nevertheless, the forced change in the driving environment proved to be a welcome relief from the long and monotonous drive.

Driving on Route-66 was neither for the weak-hearted nor for the impatient. Overtaking a slowpoke ahead, on a two-lane highway, would often pose a challenge. To pass a car ahead, you have to wait until you get the right to pass, by way of a broken white line on your side of the road as well as a sign posted on the roadside. Then you have to make sure there is no traffic coming from the opposite direction. When these two conditions are satisfied, you can safely cross over to the opposing traffic lane, accelerate to overtake the car in front of you, traveling in the same direction as you, move sufficiently far ahead of it before merging back into your lane. For a safe execution of this maneuver, you need the implicit cooperation of two other drivers. The driver of the car you are passing should either maintain or slow down a bit – but not accelerate – to make it easier for you to overtake.  Any driver coming from the opposing direction should be mindful of the potential danger of a head-on collision. This maneuver is relatively easy if the traffic is light in both directions and if there is only one car ahead of you to overtake.

Not all vehicles move fast. Farm vehicles, vehicles towing a trailer, a vehicle driven by an elderly person, or a vehicle driven by a timid driver move slowly. If a car falls behind these inherently slow vehicles, and cannot overtake the slow vehicle in a timely manner, another car would arrive and line up behind the second car. Soon a long platoon will be moving slowly behind the slowpoke at the head of the procession. In the Sixties, there were frequent discussions in magazines and TV shows on whom to blame for the platoon formation on highways like Route-66. Experts decided that the “fault”, if we may call it a fault, is the second diver’s in the procession, not the first. If the second driver in a platoon cannot or will not overtake the first driver, then it would be that much more difficult for the third driver to overtake two cars in front, and so on, ad infinitum.

Another memorable feature of American highways of the sixties are the billboards and roadside advertisements. Huge billboards dominated the highway robbing the travelers the opportunity to enjoy the countryside. Some of the road signs displaying essential information, such as road conditions and directions, were often overwhelmed by signs inviting travelers to stop by and see a three-headed snake, a five-legged cow or a mermaid were outright dangerous.  The ridiculousness of these posters went so far that Wall Drug Company posted a sign saying, “Our store is only 827 miles ahead! Please stop by.” I thought there should be a law to prohibit street side billboards. On the car radio, I heard news reports on pending legislation to address this problem. Finally, on October 22, 1964, President Johnson signed the Highway Beautification Act that stipulated rules and regulations on advertising on highways. This is one example where unregulated laissez-faire climate did not lead to a public good until the government intervened and regulated.

Although I despised the tasteless commercials that formed an eyesore, one set of advertisements, from the Burma Shave Company, turned out to be an exception. Actually, I bumped into these Burma Shave commercials quite unexpectedly. As I was driving, I noticed a relatively small and innocuous board with the words, “Our part.” It made no sense and I just ignored it. After a mile, I saw a similar sized board, with the words, “to make your face.” This too made no sense, but this time I could not just ignore it. But I couldn’t do anything about it. I kept on driving. After another mile, I saw a third board – the same size, the same height, with the words – “a work of art.” My curiosity was aroused. Was there a message intended? “To make your face, A work of art”? I kept driving. After another mile, I found yet another board with the inscription, “Burma Shave!” What did the first board say? I could not tell how many boards I had driven past before they caught my attention. I had to drive several miles before I could find an exit. I exited, turned around, and went back East – sufficiently far – and turned West and started hunting for the missed boards. Finally, I found out that there was a message:

Everyday / We Do / Our Part / To Make Your Face / A Work of Art / Burma Shave!

After this discovery, I started anxiously looking for another set of boards. In my trip I found two more:

Substitutes / Can let you down/ Quicker / Than a / Strapless Gown / Burma-Shave!

This will never / Come to pass / A Back Seat / Driver / Out of Gas / Burma-Shave!

At my leisurely pace, I pushed on past Tulsa, toward Oklahoma City. Leaving the rolling hills behind, my car entered along stretches of highway passing through the virtually empty land. The scenery of a long, lonely highway, looking like a black strip of ribbon stretching up to the horizon over a featureless terrain was so compelling that it was etched in my brain.  Years later, I was surprised and startled to see the same image re-played in front of my eyes while watching Rain Man starring Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise. Although the movie showed a billboard claiming the Big 8 Motel, in which Raymond and Charlie stayed, was ‘Amarillo’s Finest,’ in fact, it was shot in El Reno, OK.

This was not the first time Hollywood played such tricks on us. In The Graduate, Benjamin graduated from the University of California at Berkeley but the college scenes were shot at the University of Southern California. In fact, Uma, wearing a sari, appears in one of the long shots of the campus scene. Although the scene appears in the movie for less than a minute, the outdoor shooting unit camped out at USC for three days and they took several takes. During the long waiting periods, Uma and I found it convenient to perch ourselves on the rim of a dry fountain. Then, a young, short fellow, with that liberal-chic-academic look – faded jeans, a tweed corduroy jacket with well-worn elbow patches, no socks, no tie – walked in and sat right in between the two of us. With that dark hair and big nose, he could pass well for a graduate student – not quite a nerd because that word did not gain currency at that time. He tried to strike a conversation with Uma. Being new in the United States she was not quite comfortable in making small talk with men, she promptly stood up and walked toward me, saying in Telugu, ”this fellow is trying to make a pass at me.” Minutes later, the director of the movie shouted, “Dusty, we are ready. Now you go over there and walk casually toward the fountain. The rest of you stay where you are.” The short, large-nosed, corduroy jacket with elbow patches promptly jumped off his perch, walked to the far end of the walkway and came to us. Even at that time, it did not dawn on us that the fellow that Uma so promptly snubbed was none other than Dustin Hoffman. None of us had heard of him.

After El Reno, I drove past Texola and entered Texas. Had it not been for the sagebrush and the dust devils swirling around, serving as constant reminders that I was on terra firma, I would have compared the drive to sailing through a trackless, windy ocean.   No wonder, someone has described this stretch of the journey as follows:

“The sun has riz

The sun has set

And here we is

In Texas yet!”

After Texola and Shamrock, I drove through a small village called McLean in Texas. I heard that a sleepy cotton field, two miles northeast of McLean held 3,000 German prisoners of war from 1943 to 1945. There was little trouble from the prisoners who were only too happy to be out of the battle zones and safe from injury. Actually, these prisoners were better off than those captured by the Soviet Union and sent to camps in Siberia.

Many local civilians worked at the prison camp as secretaries, nurses and in camp maintenance. Citizens were invited to attend movies and other programs held at the camp and some rationed supplies were sometimes contributed to town organizations. At times, prisoners were allowed to work in leased crews to help pick cotton or hoe weeds from crops. The community was closely involved with the camp, and many local citizens formed lasting friendships and relationships with some of the German prisoners.

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59 Maryville, MO

 

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I checked into the hotel and showered. After a long drive, I was tired. Came down to relax in the bar over a glass of beer. I walked into the dark, sparsely populated bar, went to the counter, picked up a glass of beer, found a solitary table in a corner, sat down to nurse my beer.

I took my time in sipping the beer and killed almost fifteen minutes. What else could I do in a strange town?

A stranger walked in and asked permission to sit at my table. The entire bar was virtually empty. I looked suggestively, at the other empty tables.

“Want to talk to you. May I?”

“Yes, please sit down.”

“I’ve been watching you from over there. You aren’t from here. Are you?”

“No. I’m coming from Indianapolis.”

“I mean, you aren’t from this country.”

“No, I’m not.”

“May I ask you what you’re doing in this country?”

I was taken aback by his intrusiveness. For a moment I thought he was an undercover agent. But he was not wearing a trench coat! Besides, the guy was small in stature. One of his feet, probably due to a birth defect, has been twisted on its side and it gave him a pronounced limp.  I reckoned he meant no harm.

“I’m a graduate student working for my Ph. D.”

As our conversation progressed, I volunteered enough information about quitting my job at Indianapolis and my plans to continue my studies at UCLA.

“Hey! Bruce!  Some suds, here!”

The bartender brought two glasses of beer. The stranger offered me one of those and finally introduced himself as Bob. He never told me his last name and I never thought of asking him. It was obvious that Bob was fascinated with me. He said so in so many words.

“I really would be delighted if you come and visit my home. My wife and family would be happy to see you.”

Why would I want to risk my life and limb on some stranger who I met in a strange city?

“Mighty nice of you. But I can’t. I am tired. Tomorrow I have a long way to go.” I politely turned him down.

Bob did not give up that easy. “Look. I‘m asking you to come because I want you to meet my son.”

“What does he do?”

“He is crazy about football. Never studies. I want him to see you. You left your folks in the old country. Living alone in this country to get an education. Perhaps he’ll see you and understand the value of an education. He isn’t going to make it big in football. I know that.”

“Where do you live?” I began to soften.

“Not far from here.”

I agreed to visit him.

“OK. We will start tomorrow. Meet me in the hotel lobby. You follow me in your car.”

“Let us do it tonight. Right now. Tomorrow I’ll be going to Joplin.”

“No, no. You see, I am not from Jefferson City.  l am from a little village called Maryville.”

“Oh, no. I cannot come if it takes me out of the way. I’ve got a long journey ahead of me. Besides, I cannot afford to waste money. I am a student, remember?”

Bob begged me. “Please come and stay with us for a couple of days. You’ll get to know my son. Please talk to him. Drive some sense into his head. You have plenty of time to go to Los Angeles. It should not cost you anything. You stay with me in my home. I will pay for your gas. Please do not say no.”

I am a softie. This fellow seems to know how to make friends and persuade them to his point of view.

Next morning, I filled my tank and followed Bob and drove on some single-lane, winding road through rolling hills for over 200 miles before we reached Maryville by about 2 PM. I found the village to be a small, sleepy, jerkwater community. It reminded me of Sheriff Andy Taylor’s Mayberry.

Bob did not stop anywhere during the trip for a lunch break. I was famished. Mercifully, Bob’s wife – a tall and hefty lady contrasting Bob’s small size – mechanically offered a grilled cheese sandwich and a glass of milk. In her I sensed neither curiosity nor affection toward me; she stood in stark contrast to the bubbly affection and enthusiasm of Bob. Nevertheless, she took care of my needs. I sat at a high barstool by a counter and started scanning the surroundings as I ate the sandwich.

Bob’s home was a small and unpretentious place, with high barstools near a counter serving as a dining area. Bob, who disappeared for a while, came back and took me into a small basement and offered a bed for me to rest. The look and feel of the basement and the bed reinforced my initial judgment that theirs was a family of modest means.

Bob came back in the evening and informed me that he could not locate the football player. Did I make the trip for nothing? Next morning, around 10 AM, Bob’s son did appear in front of me. He did look big all right – like a football player – but showed little or no interest in talking to me.  He really did not give me as much of a chance to figure out if there are any brains behind that brawn. I felt that there was little chance he would ever become a serious student of any intellectual pursuit. Bob knew what the outcome would be from the outset; he, nevertheless, wanted to try. Try, he did.

That evening, with still plenty of daylight left, we went to the schoolhouse to meet his neighbors and friends. Apparently, he arranged a gathering. There I met Maryville’s proverbial butcher, barber, and candlestick maker. I also met their teacher, grocer, and the mailman. It was a small gathering of friendly folk. We did some small talk.

The barber, also the town’s unofficial historian, told me that Maryville was laid out, in 1845, on the rolling prairie as the seat of newly organized Nodaway County. The town was named for its first white woman settler, Mary House Graham, the wife of county official Amos Graham. The county name comes from the Nodaway (Algonquian for snake or enemy) River.

The teacher told me that Maryville was the birthplace of the famous author, Dale Carnegie, the author of How to Win Friends and Influence People. No wonder Bob influenced me and made me make this trip. They also mentioned the names of a couple of local politicians that made big in state politics. Over a cup of coffee and pastry, they told me how their forefathers came to America from the ‘old country.’

“Tell us something about your family and India.”

I had gone through this territory many times in Detroit. I told them some tidbits about my parents, and about mangoes, monsoons, and a fight between a mongoose and a cobra.

“Your county name means snake. Perhaps you would be interested to hear more about snakes? Let me tell you something about a king cobra and a python. I began to spin a couple of stories, based on bits of information from my childhood.

“The Latin name for king cobra is Ophiophagus, which means a snake that eats other snakes. It is the world’s longest venomous snake, with a length of 15-18 feet. Despite the word ‘cobra’ in its name, this snake is not a member of Naja (‘true cobras’) but belongs to its own genus.

“Villagers, where my mom grew up, believed that the venom of a king cobra is 100 times as powerful as that of a cobra. When a king cobra raises its hood and ‘stands up’ it would be ‘eye to eye’ with an adult male. The hiss of a king cobra is special; it can be heard as far away as one hundred yards.

“We have pythons too. We call them mountain snakes. Once, some of my village buddies saw a python in the process of swallowing a mountain goat, head first. The head was completely covered by the python’s mouth while the legs were still flailing. They tactfully severed the head from the rest of the body using their ax and took the goat’s body home for its meat.”

Early next morning, I started to resume my journey west. I told Bob that I did not like that winding road that we came in. He suggested an alternate, longer route, via St. Joseph and Kansas City, a divided, four-lane highway that would take me to Joplin to catch Route 66. I thanked Bob and his wife for their hospitality (the football play nowhere to be seen) and seated myself in the driver’s seat.

Bob came to the window and placed eight dollars in my hand and said, “keep this for your gasoline expenses.” Bob remembered my casual comment in Jefferson City about the affordability of this trip. I was impressed. After receiving his hospitality for two days I felt it awkward to take money. I hesitated. He insisted. I started the car and bade goodbye to Bob and Maryville.

I made a detour of 500 miles to honor Bob’s request.  My Volkswagen gave 30 miles per gallon. At about eighteen cents a gallon, I spent about three dollars for this detour. If I include wear and tear on the car, my out-of-pocket expenses came to less than eight dollars! “Smart guy!” I thought.

For the next two days, I kept wondering why I did not bother to find more about my own ancestors. When I first arrived in Detroit, people bombarded me with questions about India. Only then did I start reading about India. Then and there I made a decision to reconstruct the story, someday, of our ancestors from my dad’s side.

I made several trips to India since this marathon drive on Route-66. On each visit, I gathered some information about our ancestors, visited ancestral places, and re-constructed a version that sounded reasonable and logical. I recalled my interview with the principal of the Hindu College in Machilipatnam. I visited Machavaram, a sleepy, little, run-down village, and visited some long-lost blood relatives from my father’s side. They showed me a half-acre plot of land that still, apparently, belonged to my father. I visited Gavaravaram and saw a small plot of land on which a poor barber’s family had been living in a thatch-roofed shed. Our father instructed us, time and again, that we should not try to make claims on these two pieces of land. “Let them enjoy”, he instructed us.

58 Back to School?

 

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Financially, life in Indianapolis took a quantum leap for the better. I could afford to send more money to my parents in India. In six months, I saved enough to buy a used Volkswagen bug for a $1,000. By the end of the year, I had estimated, I would have decent savings to tide over any emergencies.

Socially, life in Indianapolis turned out to be boring. The Indian community in Indianapolis comprised of just one couple, the Mehtas, and three bachelors: Khanna, a Punjabi and Chalapathirao and me, both Telugus. This Chalapathirao, a nephew of Dr. A. S. Rao, the founding director of the Electronics Corporation of India would have been a good company but for his uppity behavior. He dated a woman by the name Gay and he even arranged a blind date with a petite girl.  We soon parted ways because I couldn’t stand his “superior complex” – a common trait exhibited by many Indians toward newcomers.

Although John Beck and Dale Linvill invited me often to their homes, I still felt lonely. To kill time, I started taking evening classes at IUPUC: Fortran II, Relativity, and Modern Control Theory, the last one taught by Prof. Z.  V. Rekasius; he drove in once a week from the main campus at Lafayette, IN. I befriended Rekasius with the intention of doing a Ph. D. from Purdue and making RCA pay for it.

On one of my visits to the IUPUC library, I had stumbled into a display of some newly acquired books in a locked glass case. One of those was High-Speed Analog Computation by R. Tomovic from Belgrade and Walter J. Karplus from the University of California, Los Angeles. I did not get a chance to see the book inside and I had no idea of its contents. Nevertheless, I wrote a letter to Karplus stating that I had seen that book and expressed a desire to do Ph. D. under his supervision. I had enclosed copies of my transcripts. By saying that I had “seen” the book, I told him the truth, because I had seen the outside of the book that was displayed inside a locked glass case.

Shortly thereafter I called Prof. Karplus on the phone as a follow-up of my letter. He told me that he could offer me a half-time Research Assistantship at $2.48 per hour; that would be less than $200/ a month.  And it would be my responsibility to pay an out-of-state tuition of about $400 per Quarter. Then he asked me to go ahead and apply for admission. I did. The university replied that admission would be contingent upon proof of support from a professor. Obviously, Prof. Karplus had forgotten to put a note in my file. I called him again. Maya Nishinaga answered the phone. I explained my problem to her and asked if I can talk to him.

“He is on another line.”

“OK,  I will call back after ten minutes.”

“No. wait. He is about to leave for the airport. His taxi is waiting downstairs. He won’t come back from Austria for a month.”

She patched me in soon after the line became available.

I spoke to Prof. Karplus. He said, “OK,  I will ask Maya to put in a letter in your file.”

“Can you please give me a letter in writing about the assistantship?”

“OK. I have to rush. Maya will sign the letter for me.” He hung up!

On the strength of his word on the telephone, I quit my job at RCA, exactly one year after I joined the company.

The daughter of my landlady, a member of the American Automobile Association, took me to the local AAA office and obtained some roadmaps for me. The staff marked all interesting site-seeing places along the way, mostly on Route 66, and encouraged me to visit all those places.

I loaded my meager belongings into the Bug and headed west. My first stop was to be Mansfield/Joplin area in Missouri. AAA recommended that I spend a couple days in the Ozarks. I was told that it was a place of natural beauty with rivulets, springs, and lakes.

By evening I crossed the Mississippi at St. Louis. Still a novice at driving, I missed the exit to Route 66 (now replaced by I-44) that would have taken me toward Mansfield and Joplin. I realized that I was lost and found myself in the downtown area of Jefferson City. I was not only lost, but I was also heading in the wrong direction. I exited the freeway to make inquiries and a course correction. As I came out of the maze of downtown exits, I found myself in front of a big hotel, a tall, imposing red-brick structure. I went inside and asked the clerk at the front desk directions to get back to Joplin.

“You came too far from your proper exit. The evening traffic is bad. Why don’t you sleep here for the night and I’ll direct you to Joplin tomorrow? Our rates are reasonable; only $4.50 a night.”

“Good enough. I am tired too. Give me a room for the night.”

57 Memories from Indianapolis

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Kennedy Assassination

In the RCA Home Instruments Division where I had worked, it was not uncommon, at any time, to find numerous television sets, some from competitors, that were laid open with all the circuits exposed. It was like an anatomy lab, with the body parts strewn all over. Engineers kept these television sets turned on and tuned in to their favorite stations, kept the volume extremely low, and watched their favorite programs from the corner of their eyes, even as they work with the electrical circuits, soldering irons and oscilloscopes. On Friday, November 22, 1963, in the early afternoon, shortly after 1.30 PM, the on-going afternoon soap, As the World Turns, was interrupted with a generic graphic slide reading, “CBS News Bulletin.” Shortly afterward CBS’s eye logo appeared on the screen. The voice of Walter Cronkite announced, “We interrupt this program” and continued:

“Here is a Bulletin from CBS News. In Dallas, Texas, three shots were fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade in downtown Dallas. The first reports say that President Kennedy has been seriously wounded in the shooting.”

There was a moment of stillness around me. An air of disbelief surrounded me.

My disbelief turned into disgust when I suddenly noticed, from the corner of my eye, a bunch of engineers and technicians, seated at the far corner of the cavernous room, began to applaud with obvious glee. Their reaction to the news was immature, at best. I had known that Indiana, at that time, had a conservative streak, but their behavior was abhorrent. (I am not saying that Indians are averse to display such behavior. Indeed, years later, Indian Sikhs danced on the streets of London when they heard that Indira Gandhi had been assassinated!)

A little later, obviously shaken, with a touch of wetness in his eyes, Cronkite came back, put his glasses on and read the news dispatch:

“From Dallas, Texas. The flash apparently official. President Kennedy died at 1 O’clock PM Central Standard Time, 2 O’clock Eastern Standard Time, some thirty-eight minutes ago.”

I liked Kennedy and I thought others liked him too. Obviously, I was wrong.

The next three days I was glued to the television, so was the nation. Soon I had learned, from TV, that there were others in the world who also felt like my colleagues at RCA. During that period, Madam Nhu, the grieving sister-in-law of Ngo Dinh Diem (3 Jan. 1901 – 2 Nov. 1963), the assassinated president of Vietnam, and the wife of his assassinated brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, wrote Jacqueline Kennedy:

“I do not know you, but you must understand now what a wife feels when told that her husband has been brutally done to death. What has come to you is only one effect of the frightful injustice of which my husband was an innocent victim…”

This whole episode left me with a sense of trepidation, especially about living in Indianapolis, until another event brought me back to my senses.

Prevention of one Death

In January 1964, I received a letter from uncle Mylavarapu Ramana Murthy.

When we moved from Pithapuram to Tuni in 1940, my father held the position of a clerk in the sub registrar’s office. A few houses down the street from our home, Ramana Murthy had been living with his family in a rented house. At that time, uncle Ramana Murthy worked as a petty clerk in a store of a local merchant. Both families struck a friendship, ever since – through thick and thin.

Over a period of time, Ramana Murthy uncle learned the ropes of doing business and started his own business, acting as a middleman between growers of sugarcane products and retailers. This type of business goes by the name commission business. One can engage in this type of “middle-man” business with practically zero investment, but one can lose one’s shirt too. Uncle did well and made good money.

As they prospered, uncle built a built a big, two-story house on a large lot on an adjacent street. He performed the wedding of his daughter, Sachi, in style; when there was no electric utility in town, uncle Ramana Murthy hired a company to electrify the wedding and reception areas. It was a novelty at that time, to see electric lights, in our village. The only other time I had seen electric lights in our village had been when the Raja of Tuni performed the wedding of his daughter – in grand style.

Their prosperity did not stand in the way of the friendship between the two families. After all, they managed to corner Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, in their family and we managed to corner Saraswati, the goddess of education, in our family and each admired the other. Indeed, our family became an exemplar to Ramana Murthy’s eldest son, Bobby; he did not like the idea of joining his father in the prospering family business. He pointed at us saying, “like them, I want to go to the university and study.” My mom felt proud that her children are now role models to others in town. Bobby went to Andhra University in Visakhapatnam to chart out a career. A few months after he had left home, he fell victim to a severe and virulent strain of smallpox. Everything happened so rapidly, it stunned the family – and the whole village. It was especially hard on our family because the boy wanted to follow our lead.

I opened the letter and there was a sense of utter urgency in that letter. Unbeknownst to me, Ramana Murthy uncle’s daughter, Sachi – whose wedding I had attended – had a bout with tuberculosis and one of her lungs had been removed. The TB spread to the other lung. Now there is no surgical option. Indian doctors told him that there was the only way they knew how to save the life of his daughter. A new experimental medicine had recently come into the American market. That medicine, they told, would be the last hope. Uncle Ramana Murthy asked me if there is some way I could get that medicine – Ethambutol, I believe was its name – and send it by express mail. Speed is of the essence.

I took that letter and went to a couple of neighborhood pharmacies. Yes. They have the medicine. No, they cannot sell it without a prescription.

I visited a couple of doctors, explained the problem and asked whether they would give me a prescription. They refused. We did not have a network of Indian medical professionals at that time to draw strength from; there were only four Indians (Me, Khanna, Mehta, and Chalapathi Rao) in the entire city of Indianapolis!

I was totally at a loss. That day, I sat in RCA’s cafeteria, with a long face, mincing my home-made peanut butter sandwich. Charlie, my lunch companion, joined me for small talk. I casually mentioned my failed efforts at getting a prescription filled to help a dying patient in India. Charlie asked me to show him the letter. I gave him the letter from uncle Ramana Murthy. It was written in Telugu, except for the name the drug, in English. He took the letter and asked me not to worry.

Two days later Charlie met me at the lunch table and gave me back my letter. I thought he too reached the end of his rope. Then he produced a prescription for Ethambutol and asked me to go out to the corner drug store and order the medicine.

“How did you do it?”

“Well, my neighbor is the head of Eli Lily Company. Their headquarters is right here in Indianapolis. And they hold the patent and they manufacture Ethambutol right here, in Indianapolis! I showed your letter to the Chief and he asked their company doctor to write this prescription for you.”

I air-shipped the medicine the next day.

Sachi, now a mother, recovered completely and is still alive and kicking at the time of this writing! Their whole family, with one voice, told me that the reason God sent me to America had been to save Sachi’s life. I wonder what would have happened had I accepted the assistantship at Michigan State!

I tell them that it was Charlie who saved her life.

Nehru’s Death

Jawaharlal Nehru died on May 27, 1964. I can still vividly remember the day Nehru died and the moment I learned about it. I heard about it on my TV’s  morning news program. Chet Huntley delivered a moving tribute in his eulogy on that evening’s Huntley-Brinkley Report. He praised Nehru for his role in world affairs, raised the then passé issue “After Nehru Who,” and concluded by saying, I am paraphrasing from memory, “it is hard to estimate the impact of the loss of such a towering personality.”

The American journalist Welles Hangen, who wrote the book, “After Nehru, Who?” had speculated: “Many people in India who concede that Nehru can now be replaced have told me that only he could have held the country together in the early days after the Partition of British India.”

Hindsight is always 20/20, but Nehru opted to take the less traveled road and that had made all the difference. Robert Frost wrote:

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

We could have done better, but we could have done worse like many other post-colonial countries. Nehru made mistakes. Great people make great mistakes. He made a tactical mistake in handling Kashmir. He misunderstood the nature of the dispute with China. To many, Nehru had outlived his purpose, particularly after the disastrous India-China War of 1962.

56 The Interview

 

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The next morning, at RCA, Bill Brooks first met me. Not knowing his rank and anxious to impress him, I told him how David Sarnoff, the founding head of RCA, when he was only 23, happened to receive the SOS message from the sinking RMS Titanic and the critical role he played in getting that message to RMS Carpathia that, in turn, played a critical role in the ensuing rescue operations. Brooks confessed his ignorance about this trivia. Later I learned that he was only a Personnel Manager, not a technical manager that would make the hiring decision.

Several managers interviewed me, most in a perfunctory manner. Finally, I walked into the office of Mr. Roland Rhoades. A portly middle-aged fellow, with a cigar in his mouth. He introduced himself as the head of the newly created research division.  After the pleasantries, he asked,

“What do you know about television tuners?

“Very little. I never had a television. I saw a television set for the first time in my life after coming to the United States. But I do know a little about radio tuners.” I did not tell him that I never owned a radio either. As an afterthought, I added, “perhaps a TV tuner is not much different, in principle.”

“In what way do you think it would be different if any?”

“Perhaps in the frequency range.”

“Now imagine that we want to change the channel remotely, that is, without reaching out to the TV set. How do you propose to do it?”

“I can run a wire, concealed under the carpet, from the TV’s tuner to my sofa, and keep the channel changing switch in my hand.”

“Suppose you are prohibited from using a wire. Then what?”

Mr. Rhoades engaged me in a conversation for more than an hour on how I would design a system to change the channels from a remote location without a wire. We discussed several design alternatives, and their pros and cons. Many of these ideas involved the use of different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, such as radio waves, microwaves, infrared, visible, ultraviolet, etc.

“Any other ideas?”

“I am sorry, I ran out of the spectrum. Perhaps I can think of some more if I sleep over the problem.”

Mr. Rhoades smiled at me and congratulated me for covering all the alternatives RCA had considered, except the one that they had actually adapted.

“You were only thinking about the electromagnetic spectrum. There are other types of waves.”

“Sound waves? How?”

“We used a tuning fork in our remote-control units.” He showed me a unit, with a smile.

“Is this what I am expected to do?” And I added, quickly, “should you decide to hire me.”

“We are interested in designing TV tuners using integrated circuits. In your resume, you had indicated that you did some experiments diffusing phosphorous into single crystal silicon. We are interested in evaluating the significance of integrated circuit technology in television receivers, especially the 4.5 Megahertz inter-carrier sound channel, in monochrome and color receivers. I asked you all these questions to see how you think. We may or may not use sound waves in tuners of the future. As you correctly guessed, we may use infrared.”

The interview was over by 3 PM and I was escorted to the office of Mr. Brooks. Before I left for the airport that evening, Mr. Brooks made a verbal offer of eight hundred dollars per month with benefits. RCA would sponsor me for an immigrant visa. A written offer would come in the mail.

I joined RCA the following week, in July 1963. The soap suds in Brown’s Lake had been a brief, yet amusing chapter, in my career!

55 To Indianapolis

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Good things rarely last long. In the third week of my stay at Browns Lake Resort, a long-distance call came to the front office. I was instructed to call back, collect, a Bill Brooks. The caller left a number.

Would it be possible that I got into trouble with the Immigration and Naturalization Service because I did not take their permission before taking this summer job? With trepidation, I called back from a public telephone booth. The caller turned out to be the Personnel Manager from RCA’s Home Instrument’s Division in Indianapolis. He was inviting me for a job interview – as soon as possible. He told me that an airplane ticket would be waiting for me at an airport of my choice. I could not even recall when I had applied for a job at RCA. Could this be the result of that randomized job hunting experiment in which I had participated?

I was trying to figure out a way to go from Brown’s Lake to Milwaukee airport. Upon hearing my predicament, one of the guests, a Mr. McCormick, a Britisher working at a Chicago company, offered to take me to the airport in his car.

On the flight, I kept thinking about the interview. What would they ask? How should I respond? I started thinking about the first interview of my life, hoping to draw strength from that experience.

Flashback to 1954. Prior to admitting me to the College of Engineering at Kakinada, the government conducted an interview in Guntur. I had entered a cavernous hall and took my seat in front of three growling bureaucrats. In rapid-fire style, they asked me questions, one after another, without giving me so much of a respite to get scared of them.

“Here in this application,” Prof. Damodaram, I believe, tapping on a paper in front of him asked, “you’ve expressed a preference for Kakinada over Anantapur. Why?”

“Anantapur is too far from my native place. I prefer to …”

“How far is Anantapur from your place?” It was Prof. Natesan’s turn.

“I would say, er… 400 miles.”

“How do you know? Can you prove it?” The third person the panel intoned.

“Well, er.., sir ….. ,“ I pulled a  ticket stub from my pocket, “I have this train ticket. The ticket says Guntur is 200 miles from my native place. I heard that you chose – to be fair for students from both sides – Guntur as the venue for the interviews because it is midway between the two campuses. That is how I arrived at 400 miles.”

“What branch of Engineering do you wish to study?”

“Civil Engineering.”

“Why?”

“I like rivers. I like dams. I saw the weir in Dowleswaram.”

“Suppose you are standing on a river bank. You have no instruments whatsoever. How can you determine the speed of water flow?”

There was no time to blink or swallow.

“Well. I will throw a dry twig into the water and follow the twig by walking along the riverbank. I’ll use my pulse as a clock and my stride as a yardstick.”

“You answered this question so fast. Did you ever do this?”

“No. But, on the way here I measured the speed of my train by counting the number of telephone poles we passed in one minute.”

Before this interview, I had been ranked 17 and after the interview, my rank advanced to position 3.

As I was daydreaming about the bygone days, the plane landed at the Indianapolis airport. I hired a cab and the cabbie had taken more than a passing interest in me. I had been the first person of Indian descent in his cab, he told me. Then he corrected my pronunciation of “Indianapolis” and made me repeat after him the correct way.

“It was not ‘Indiyaanaa’ and ‘police’ (as we Indians pronounce the word) put together. There is no “India” and no “police.” It should be “Indyanaa” with the “I” in India almost silent and no accent on the “a” of India. Then the ‘police’ should be pronounced as the ‘polis’ as in ‘metropolis’.”

Then he told me that he was a wounded war veteran. He pointed at his missing thumb on the left hand.”

“How did you lose the thumb?” I had expected an act of bravery.

“I worked as a chef. It was an accident in the kitchen.” He grinned.  “Is this your first visit to Indianapolis?”

“Yes.”

“Look, you are our guest. I am going to turn the meter off and give you a free tour of our city before dropping you off at the motel. I hope you are not in a rush.”

He diverted the taxi and took me on a route that went through the middle of the Crown Hill Cemetery and started telling the historical importance of the cemetery.

“This is the third largest cemetery in the United States.”

“…”

This is more than 550 acres.”

“…”

“More than 150,000 reside here. Not every Tom, Dick and Harry can get in here.”

“…”

“John Dillinger was buried here.”

“…”

“Do you know who John Dillinger was?”

“No. I do not.” I admitted my ignorance.

“That fellow was a big-time bank robber. The FBI got him at the Biograph Theater in Chicago and killed him. And they buried him here.”

“…”

“It is an honor to get a burial plot here. As much as Washington’s Arlington National Cemetery.”

I was not in a mood to entertain thoughts about burials and cemeteries. My mind was drifting elsewhere – on to the interview the next day.

The cabbie noticed the lack of an enthusiastic response from me. In one final act of desperation to impress me, he said, “sir! Trust me. People are just dying to get in here.”

I could not but note the unintended pun and participated in his enthusiasm.

The cabbie dropped me at the Meadows Motel on North Sherman Drive, a short walk from RCA.

54 Brown’s Lake, WI

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Hunting for a job had become an ongoing obsession for the three of us: Atchutarao, Satyanarayana and myself. Campus interviews took us nowhere. I used to give my stock answers to the questions routinely asked by the campus recruiters:

“Do you have any experience?”

“yes. I worked for three years in India.”

“Do you have any experience in the US?”

“No.”

“Your country needs you more. You should go back and help your country!”

“True.”

“If we hire you, are you going to stay with us or go back to your country after a year?”

“If you hire me, are you going to promise to keep me for over a year?”

“We will be in touch.”

I had known by then that they were not going to be in touch.

To cut through this Campus Interview juggernaut, Atchutarao proposed a method. He had located a thick tome – like the Yellow Pages – that listed the names and addresses of many companies in the US. He suggested that we each randomly pick ten companies and send them our resumes. How do we randomize the pick? Atchutarao proposed a method that he had learned in one of his Business Administration classes. Toward that end, we prepared a makeshift roulette wheel with a thin, circular piece of cardboard by drawing radial lines on it to divide that into ten equal parts – like the pieces of a pie. We wrote the digits 0 through 9 – one each, in each of the ten pie sections. We then balanced it using a thumbtack, sat around it, and spun it; like a roulette wheel. When the wheel comes to a stop, we make a note of the number in front of us. We repeat the process and collect four numbers. We put together these four randomly generated digits to create a random four-digit number. We go to the “Yellow Pages” and pick the company whose ID number starts with that four-digit sequence. After we repeated this experiment ten times we each had identified ten non-overlapping company names. Bingo! Using Atchutarao’s small portable typewriter, we prepared our applications and mailed them. Those were shots in the dark.  We made no attempt to match our interests with the company’s mission. The palliative we had used to endure the silence that ensued was to forget about that whole thing.

My roommate Satyanarayana Vasireddy was not of the waiting kind; he gets up with a running stride!  Not willing to wait for the results of  “a stupid and unproductive effort” – as Lakshmi characterized it – he managed to find a summer job at a resort hotel in Brown’s Lake, Wisconsin, a remote lakeside resort halfway between Milwaukee and Madison. It offered him room and board and an opportunity to save $1,500/=, enough to buy his ticket back to India. He had arranged a similar job for me also. Using his newly acquired marketing skills, he began to sell the idea to me; “this would be a way to supplement the offer you had at Michigan State.”

“Dignity of labor! Go ahead. Some job is better than no job,” intoned Atchutarao.

“If it is the dignity of labor, why don’t you also go with them? How long can we expect my dad to support us from India?” Lakshmi did not mince words. She was getting tired of Atchutarao’s empty talk and no action.

I was equivocating and Satya did not wait for my resolution. Next morning he called me from Brown’s Lake. “This is not as bad an assignment as we had feared. It is fine here. They are looking for one more hand and I had told them that you would be coming tomorrow.”

Satya wanted company, not just for social reasons but to reconcile himself to the fact that he had to wash dishes in spite of an MBA. You can do a less-dignified job if you are not alone doing it!  For me, preserving my available capital turned out to be as important as making new money.  Next morning, I hopped on a Greyhound bus. The friendly driver stopped the bus right in front of the Resort.  Brown’s Lake was a census-designated place in Racine County, Wisconsin, situated by a small lake of the same name. The population at that time was probably around 1,000. Technically, it was a part of the town of Burlington, WI.

A small lake, Brown’s Lake had an area of about 400 acres and a maximum depth of about 45 feet. Visitors get access to the lake from a public boat landing, in close proximity to the Resort. The lake’s water clarity is low. Swimming, fishing, horseback riding were popular activities. The guests spent time sitting under the shaded trees and sipping libations.  It was a small, low-key resort.

 

We did a lot of odd jobs in the kitchen, but our primary responsibility had been to wash dishes. Fortunately, we didn’t have to wrestle with suds; the kitchen was equipped with a couple of dishwashers. Washing Plates and Silver is easy. You wear long rubber gloves that go up to your shoulder, take a small rubber scraper to scrape off solid leftovers into a wastebasket and place the plates in large industrial-strength dishwashers. Then you add a measured amount of detergent, close the door, and press a switch. Next, you load the second dishwashing machine. Then we wait for an hour for the dishwashers to go through their wash, rinse and dry cycles. What do you do for an hour? We walk into the kitchen, help ourselves with some ice cream, fruit salad, a piece of a pie, or whatever! Then we relax in the back room, chatting with each other or with other kitchen staff.

The second category of dishes is called “Pots and Pans.”  Washing these would be a back-breaking chore requiring a lot of elbow grease. That assignment went to a couple of American college kids. If you ever tried to clean a pot in which oatmeal had been cooked, good luck, pal!

There were lots of opportunities for fun during leisure hours. The chef, Ryan, had been a taskmaster but his daughter, Katie, a petite brunette in her late teens, befriended me and began to teach me horseback riding and swimming. The resort’s pianist, a dirty blonde in her late twenties, taught us “Tie me kangaroo down” to sing along with her. She also took me with her to neighborhood bars where she performed. I and Satya befriended many of the guests, many of whom were professionals from Chicago and Milwaukee. Life began to perk up.

53 Where were we?

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The Cuban missile crisis revealed one fact of life. Susan called me when she was concerned. Anytime I felt lonely, I’d call her and she’d come to my residence, pick me up, and take me around for a ride. Sometimes we simply hung around. These trysts do not satisfy the strict definition of a date. I never asked her for a date and took her out on my dime. It was not even Dutch. One of our favorite hangouts had been a deserted stretch of the sparsely traveled Telegraph Road, just to the west of Bloomfield Hills. Susan would pull the car over to a wide swath of the shoulder of the two-lane highway and we’d talk while enjoying the solitude offered by the rolling hills.

On one of those outings, the day had been gloomy and cold with an overcast sky. Susan pulled the car over the shoulder, turned off the engine, moved closer to me on the bench seat and we just huddled there, talking. The car had been sitting on a ridge and the street ahead went into a steep dive and rose up again, giving us a nice panoramic view. The Fall’s denuded trees lined the highway on both sides. The lack of sunlight made it difficult to notice the undulations in the street on the gray background. There was very little traffic with an occasional car whizzing past.

We talked many things. A popular question from many, including Susan, would be, “what is an arranged marriage? How does it work?

Instead of intellectualizing the concept and debating the merits and demerits of arranged versus love marriages, I told Susan how the process works in India, with the help of mediators. Susan was fascinated by the mechanics of the first “interview” between the boy and girl at the girl’s home turf, in the presence of the elders from both sides. Then she asked about dowry. The conversation dwelt on the mechanics of the wedding ritual itself. She wondered how happy the couple would be in married life – given that they were total strangers to start with!

I maintained that happiness in marriage has nothing to do with how the marriage happened – arranged or love; it was purely a matter of chance.

“What is the purpose of dating? Is it to get to know each other? Then why are so many American marriages end up in divorce? …….Did you hear of Jane Austen?”

“Isn’t she a writer?”

Yes! A 18th-century British writer well known for her social commentary on contemporary English life! In her Pride and Prejudice, she famously observed, “if the dispositions of the parties are ever so well known to each other, or ever so similar before-hand, it does not advance their felicity in the least. They always continue to grow sufficiently unlike afterward to have their share of vexation, and it is better to know as little as possible the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life.”

“Do arranged-marriages fail?”

“Of course, they do, but not as often as love marriages fail in America. What do you call it when people are married and live together until they get so tired of each other they want to break away, but couldn’t for umpteen reasons: social pressures, financial dependence, children, what not. You get on each other’s nerves. You start jawing at each other. You probably loved the guy at one time, but that’s all worn off and he irritates the hell out of you.

“You say things that hurt him and he says that touches your sore spots. He is always jumping on you. Your self-respect starts sticking up for you…”

As we sat there philosophizing marriages and watching approaching traffic, Susan screamed,

“Rao, did you see that! That car dropped down from the hill!”

It was too late for me to capture what she had seen. We waited for the next car.

“Now, watch! See?”

Again! As we both watched, the approaching car dropped from the top of the hillock to the bottom of the valley in one fell swoop! Like a stone dropped from a tower! It took me a minute to compose my thoughts. Then I realized what had happened.

“Look! Susan. We both thought that that car “dropped down” because the light did not permit us to see the roadbed sloping down steeply. Actually, the car rolled down the curved surface of the road. This is a perfect example of a teachable moment of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity!”

She responded to my explanation by saying, “Where were we? You made a left turn from our topic!” This physics lesson probably was too much for Susan.

After I came to my room, I had difficulty falling asleep. The time I had been spending with Susan was memorable and sweet. My trysts with Susan did not go completely unnoticed. Lakshmi noticed it fairly early and started teasing me: “Susan is taller than you by a fist-full, watch out, it may not work! You run a mile from here whenever I cook chicken and the best you can expect from her probably is barbecued chicken. She is not going to cook dal and rasam for you!” Atchutarao tried to play big brother: “Look, you do not have enough money even to take her out on a date. Besides, you keep talking about doing a Ph. D. Tone it down.”

Upon reflection, I found plenty of reasons to keep my affair with Susan at a Platonic level. Life is strange. When you are not ready, you bump into people with whom you do not mind spending the rest of your life. By the time you get your ducks in a row and feel you are ready, the whole terrain looks dry and deserted! I had not been ready to make a lifetime commitment. I had to think about my younger sister in India, yet to be married. I had to think about the heart ache I would cause to my parents in their old age. Once I started making a mental list of things that are different between me and Susan, the list of items that attracted me toward Susan looked much shorter. It was pure, cold, rational analysis devoid of emotion that showed me the way forward.

I had already started making inquiries at Wayne State, Michigan State and the University of Michigan. I even wrote my father asking him to review my horoscope to see what is “written” in there. Professor Koenig at Michigan State did offer me an assistantship but the money was barely sufficient to survive by the skin of my teeth. Being a pragmatist, I wanted to have some backup options. I had consulted a register with a listing of companies in and around Michigan, picked a handful at random, and dropped letters of inquiry with a copy of my resume and transcript. Robert Plumb, my friend in the awnings business, arranged an interview with his friend at American Standard, Heating and Air Conditioners. None of these efforts presented a clear choice before the academic year came to an end, before I received my diploma, and before the assistantship stopped. I could see no clear path. Is that all a Master’s degree with a 3.8 GPA meant?

After receiving his doctorate, on the eve of his departure for India, my brother called me and offered me a piece of unsolicited advice. He felt that either I should return back to India or pursue my doctorate at a reputable university. Under no circumstances should I be tempted to find employment in a company with the intention of making money?

I was totally lost. Where do I turn for counsel?

 

 

52 Cuban Missile Crisis

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Monday, October 22, 1962. After a day’s work at school, I had begun walking to my room for a quick bite and a long cram-up session for the mid-term examination in Theoretical Physics the following day.

Dr. Gerhard Blass, himself an associate of Dr. Werner Heisenberg, one of the founders and young Turks of modern quantum physics, had been a good, yet demanding, teacher. I had been planning to “teach him a lesson” – by showing him how well I would handle his examination. From the beginning of the semester, I wanted to go that extra mile to impress him. Events leading to this challenging situation had come to pass like this.

One day, early on in the semester, I went to his office and asked him why he had not been giving us homework assignments. “Did I miss some announcement?” I asked him.

I had an ulterior motive in seeing him. To stand out in a class of some 40 students, I had to do something. I wanted to catch his attention by finding some excuse to strike a conversation. Dr. Blass had a vision problem of some kind. I believe he had one glass eye and one regular eye and wore thick corrective lenses. In order to see me he tilted his head to one side and said in a thick German accent:

“What is your name?”

“Vemuri. Mr. Rao Vemuri.”

“Are you Italian?”

“No. Why did you think so?”

“Your name with a vowel at the end sounded Italian. Now, what is your question?”

“Are you going to assign any homework?”

“Do all the problems at the end of each chapter.” He was referring to the textbook he had just published.

In American universities, a majority of teachers assign homework. After the students submit their work, teachers grade the work, assign scores, and use those scores in a formula to calculate the final grade. They also routinely post the correct solutions on the bulletin board. If a teacher doesn’t assign homework, then he/she is not obligated to tell the students what the correct solutions to the problems in the text are. Dr. Blass never posted his solutions.

“I tried. They are too hard. Would you please help me get started by showing me a sample solution?”

“Show me what you did so far.”

“I couldn’t figure out where to start.”

“If I tell you where to start, and how to start, then where is your imagination?”

“I am stuck at the beginning. Please give me a hint.”

Dr. Blass cocked his head at me and said, “Mr. Vemuri, at the end of the year you will be getting your Master’s degree. Then you will get a job. Your manager assigns you a task. If you wish to impress your boss, you take the assignment, run with it and come back with a solution next morning. You are not going to ask your boss where to start, who to see, and how to solve the problem. Are you? He hired you to solve his problem. You should learn to be proactive.”

For that day, I had a bellyful. I went home. Managed to write the Hamiltonian of the problem.  (A Hamiltonian represents the total energy of a system, the sum of potential and kinetic energies. It is represented as a system of differential equations where the unknowns are what are called generalized coordinates and generalized momenta.) I couldn’t figure out what to do next. I went back to Dr. Blass, showed him my effort, and asked him to help me with the next step.

He looked at my work. Nodded his head. “Who helped you?”

“No one. I did it all by myself.”

“OK. What you did is correct. Consider yourself lucky that I am your teacher. I am good and kind enough to tell you whether or not what you did was correct. In life, there won’t be anyone to tell you. At every step of the way, you have to decide whether or not you are progressing in the correct direction. Out there,”  he poked his finger into the air, “you will face competitors. They won’t tell you what is right and what is wrong. You have to figure it out. Now go home and do the next step.”

I felt that there was no point in asking him. My ego was hurt. From that day onwards, I learned how to solve problems by myself, and then how to verify the accuracy of my result. The fear of failure receded into the background. I wanted to ace his midterm examination and “teach him a lesson.” I was planning to get ready for the battle ahead.

Lost in these thoughts, I reached home. I pushed the front door open. Mrs. Fannie Freedman, the landlady, and the other tenants, all Indian students, were huddled in front of the TV set. Everyone hushed me into silence. President Kennedy was on TV and announcing a naval blockade of Cuba. It was a brief and brisk message. Soon after that, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley came on TV to explain, to dimwits like me – I suppose – what the president had just said. Chet Huntley called Kennedy’s address, “the toughest and most grim speech by a president since December 1941.” The sum and substance of the announcement and analysis were that there was no guarantee that we would see the light of the day the next morning. The possibility of a nuclear holocaust was real.

What do I do? What is the point in preparing for an examination that may not take place? Am I going to die? My parents had invested so much in me. Is that all going to be a waste?  Are they going to see me again? Am I going to die at a young age without experiencing the pleasure of a woman in bed? Strange thought, but it did cross my mind. Nattu Patel and Girish Shah suggested that we should go to a bar and get drunk. Susan called me to chat. I was not sure why she called. Perhaps she was scared. Perhaps she thought I was scared.

When I was in the final year at the Engineering College in Kakinada, back in 1958, someone had told us about a tidal wave advisory to our area. Our hostels were barely less than two miles from the beach with an elevation of fewer than 10 feet from the mean sea level. Many students took the next available bus or train and went farther inland. When the rest of us panicked, a wise head counseled us: “Look, our teachers and our principal are all living, with their wives and children, right next to the hostels. They are not running away. Let us not panic.” We stayed. There was no tidal wave.

I said to myself and told Susan, “look, Bob McNamara, Dean Rusk, President Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy – all these people have wives and children. Are they going to risk everything for a thoughtless nuclear holocaust?”

If nothing happened by next morning, there sure will be a mid-term examination in Physics. I was not prepared to take the chance of facing that examination with inadequate preparation. I shelved the thought of going to a bar, placed the fear of war in another compartment of my brain, and went ahead with my preparation.

Tuesday came! I aced the Theoretical Physics examination. The nation was still on an edge. On Thursday, the Soviet ship Bucharest was stopped and searched after it crossed the quarantine line. It was allowed to proceed after the US Navy determined that it carried no missiles. It was all shown on TV. At the UN, Ambassador Adlai Stevenson demanded a Soviet response by saying, “I am prepared to wait for my answer until hell freezes over….”

The Teacher I adored!

Dr. Blass was born in Germany in March 1916. After receiving his doctorate in physics, from Werner Heisenberg, at the University of Leipzig in 1943, he served as an assistant instructor of Theoretical Physics at Leipzig.

From 1943 to ’45, Dr. Blass worked at Siemens in Berlin, where he worked on the quantum theory of the solid-state. He taught math and physics in Nuremberg, the city where the post-war trials of the Nazis took place in 1945.

Dr. Blass came to the United States in 1949 and he joined the University of Detroit faculty in 1951. At the University of Detroit, Dr. Blass became one of the highest rated teachers by his students and was consistently the recipient of many Outstanding Teacher nominations. He was not only admired as a superior physics teacher but for his ability to demonstrate how physics was connected to other academic disciplines such as history and philosophy. In 1961, he published Theoretical Physics (Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1962  – 451 pages), a graduate level text. I loved that book. For many years, well into the 1990’s, I had saved that book and my class notes where I had solved all the problems at the end of each chapter. To my deep regret, I now bemoan the loss of that book and my notes!

51 The Sino-Indian War

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On October 16th, 1962 I read news reports of some skirmishes on the China-India border. At first, it did not register on my radar screen; I had known of the ongoing diplomatic wrangling between India and China about errors in Chinese maps. This time, the situation seemed severe enough to attract US response. The Kennedy administration started airlifting spare parts, communications equipment, and the like and made it clear that more aid would be forthcoming if India made a formal request. Many of us were worried.

The border dispute between India and China has had a long and conflicted history that eventually led to the war in 1962. Historically, land borders between countries have never been cast in concrete; they were always fluid, changing with times. In 1825, the British East India Company gained control of what is now Assam from Burmese possession. Assam had been an independent kingdom, like so many other Indian kingdoms, before coming first under Burmese occupation and then under British colonial rule. To the north of Assam was Tibet, at the time a part of the Manchu Empire. In those days, it was not probably customary to demarcate the boundaries and it had not mattered much. When the British discovered that the hill slopes of Assam were ideal for growing tea, they wanted to make sure of the boundaries of their possession. The British were also a bit wary about having the Manchu Chinese forces too close to their territories. Fortunately for the British, the Manchu Empire collapsed and Tibet became independent. The British administration then entered into an agreement with Tibet, in 1914, to make the so-called McMahon Line (named after the British diplomat Henry McMahon who negotiated the agreement), running along the highest ridges of the Himalayas, as the border between Tibet and British India. The then government of China apparently protested but couldn’t do anything about it. When the British left India in 1947, India inherited this border and its Northeast Frontier Agency, which later assumed the name Arunachal Pradesh.

If Indian claim on McMahon Line, inherited from the British, is tenuous, so is the Chinese claim of inheritance from the Manchu dynasty. Things were simmering for a while with disputed maps. When the Chinese annexed Tibet, India accepted China’s suzerainty over Tibet. When India granted asylum to the Dalai Lama, in 1959, the Chinese were not amused; they began to show the foothills below the McMahon Line and the entire state of Arunachal Pradesh as a part of China.

There are some who argue that people living in this part of Eastern India are of a different stock – ethnically, racially, linguistically and by religion – and should not belong to India. Such an argument can be applied to any people living in the border areas. People from Kashmir in the north look so much different from those from Tamil Nadu in the south – ethnically, racially, linguistically and by religion. Punjabis in the West are much different from Bengalis, and even more so than Assamese and those from Manipuri. Trying to restore status quo ante is not always a practical proposition because there is no rule on how far back one should go to redress a grievance.

As the border dispute in the North East simmered, the Chinese army had begun to build a road in the remote, windswept desert far to the west, in Akasi Chin near Ladakh in Jammu & Kashmir. The Chinese had no historical claim at all to Aksai Chin, but this did not deter them. Aksai Chin is important to China because it gave them access to the remote province of Xinjiang in the far west. China and India had talks on both issues. As diplomacy went nowhere sporadic clashes erupted at both locations. Despite objections from senior military officers, Nehru followed a “Forward Policy,” by establishing Indian outposts along the McMahon line.

In this backdrop of tensions, in December 1961, Indian army marched into Goa and incorporated the Portuguese enclave into the Indian Republic. This act, India’s Forward Policy in the North East, and the very public support accorded to the Dalai Lama fuelled Chinese anxieties. In a late round of negotiations, China apparently offered to let India keep the North East Frontier Agency in exchange for Indian recognition of its annexation of Aksai Chin. The offer was rejected.

On October 20th, 1962 ominous news reports rolled in: two Chinese divisions attacked and overran Indian positions along McMahon Line and Aksai Chin in Ladakh. No one thought the simmering map-issue would blow up into a full-scale border war. American newspapers began to speculate that Indian annexation of Goa, a few months earlier, and Nehru’s Forward Policy on the northern border had triggered fears in China. No one, except a few in the top rungs of the US administration, probably knew the real reason for the timing of the Chinese invasion into India. Those who knew were not talking, except saying that the US is ready to help India in whatever way India wants. J. K. Galbraith, the US ambassador, later admitted in his memoirs that he took it upon himself and recognized the disputed McMahon Line as the international border when he failed to get Washington’s prompt attention on this issue. Little did he know, at that time, the high drama that was being played out, behind closed doors, in Washington, starting from the 16th of October.

Nehru made a Himalayan miscalculation about China and its intentions. Back in 1938 Nehru visited China and met Chang Kai-shek. He saw China as a friend and partner in the emerging post-colonial era and told Chang, “More and more, I think of India and China pulling together in the future.”  He held this view even after the communists took over China. Although he had been a major player in the Non-Aligned Movement of largely Asian and African countries that vowed to steer clear of American and Soviet camps, Nehru made it possible for Chinese premier Zhou Enlai to take part in its inaugural Bandung Conference held in Jakarta, knowing full well that China was an ally of the Soviets. Not long before, Nehru had even turned down an American offer of a seat in the UN Security Council as a protest against America’s refusal to offer the seat to China. Nehru’s idealism blinded him to the pragmatic geopolitical forces that eventually came to bite him.

The debacle on the Himalayan front happened under defense minister V. K. Krishna Menon’s watch. When India turned to U. S. for military assistance, Menon was forced to step down because Menon was widely reviled by Western statesmen who loathed his arrogance, outspokenness, and fiercely anti-Western stances. Western publications routinely referred to him as “India’s Rasputin” or “Nehru’s Evil Genius.”

On this occasion, the Indian community in metropolitan Detroit staged a Hindi play in the Masonic Temple Theater, at the corner of Cass Ave and Temple St, to raise money in support of the troops. Although I couldn’t speak or understand a word of Hindi, I and Girish Shah played minor roles as sentries in a royal court scene. We raised $5,000/ for the cause – a paltry sum, but worth $40,000 in 2017 dollars.