When author Nalini Juthani and her new husband, Viren, left India for the United States in June of 1970, neither they nor their families knew this adventure would continue for a lifetime, that America would be the place where they would fulfill their dreams, raise a family, and find a new home. In An Uncompromising Activist, Juthani shares the stories from her life as a woman, daughter, wife, immigrant, medical educator, mother, and grandmother.
These essays, with photographs included, provide a glimpse of what it was like for the first twenty-four years of growing up in India as a woman and how the loss of her father at an early age affected her and her future. An Uncompromising Activist narrates her experiences of getting her first job in New York, her first car, her first house, and her first American friend. The stories show the courage of a woman who became a trendsetter in a new country.
Inspiring and touching, the essays describe the influence Juthani had on the lives of others while overcoming cultural barriers. It also offers the story of the Ghevaria-Juthani families and provides a history for future generations.
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An Uncompromising ACTIVIST
Memoir of an Immigrant, Educator, and Grandmother
By Nalini Juthani
iUniverse LLCCopyright © 2013 Nalini Juthani
All rights reserved.
From Those Who Have Been Given A Lot, A Lot Is Expected
In 2013, I spent a week at a medical camp in rural villages surrounding Rajkot, a small city in the state of Gujarat, in western India. I attended the camp with nine other doctors from the United States. The camp was organized by the Share and Care Foundation in the United States and the Sister Nivedita Foundation in Rajkot. We visited six schools, examined the students, gave them medicines and counseling for personal hygiene to prevent diseases, and met with teachers and parents to discuss ways to stay healthy.
I had never been to these very remote areas even when I lived in India for twenty-four years. I learned a lot about the people who live in rural India; their innocence, contentment, and curiosity touched me.
This is where I met a ten-year-old student, Sheetal, who was assigned by her teacher to be my assistant when I examined other students. She was incredibly observant and smart and kept a beautiful smile on her face. At the end of the second day, I asked her if she would like to come to the United States with me. She did not reply but stood lost in thought. When I asked if anything worried her, she smiled and said, "How did you know that?" She told me that her father had died in a motorbike accident when she was five years old; her two sisters were two years old and one month old at that time. Her mother became the breadwinner and started to work on a farm owned by her father and his brother.
When Sheetal was eight, her mother developed a serious toxic effect from a medicine and was hospitalized. Sheetal was terrified. Whenever she thinks about that episode even now, she worries; she is very aware that if something happened to her mother, she will be the caretaker of her two younger sisters. She said, "If I come with you to the United States, who will take care of my sisters?"
She sounded so mature at such a young age, and her story resonated with my own. My father passed suddenly from an abdominal hemorrhage, when I was five years old. My sister was just a newborn baby, and my mother became the breadwinner of our family. All through my growing-up years, I felt I had to take care of my family since there was no man to do it. But my life took a turn for the better because my grandparents gave us an opportunity to get education. In Rajkot, I reflected that educating girls like Sheetal will open up a whole new life for them. I decided to sponsor Sheetal's education, and that of her sisters, through high school.
When we had to leave the camp, I took pictures with Sheetal, and told her about my plan to educate all three of them one by one. She was tearful that we were leaving but said, "Foreigners who arrive here have to leave some day." She also said, "Maybe I will see you next year when you come to this camp again." I nodded.
This journey gave me an opportunity to examine how far I had come in life because I had an opportunity to become educated. I am delighted that the medical camp allowed me to meet smart girls like Sheetal and peek into their lives. My experience with Sheetal's family exemplifies my feeling that much has been given to me and now much is expected of me to give back.
The Adventure Begins
I met Viren through common relatives. We clicked from our very first meeting. I admired his untraditional, independent thinking and his courage to be different. We were attracted to each other's ambitions. Like me, Viren had plans to move to America for further medical education. We had similar career goals, similar dreams, and similar family backgrounds, and we both had a sense of adventure. I agreed to marry Viren after our initial meeting, knowing that, in an arranged marriage, love would develop over time.
On March 29, 1970, Viren and I were engaged, with a plan to get married two months later. During those two months we spent every available minute together, getting to know each other and planning for our honeymoon and new life abroad.
Viren had signed a contract with a hospital in Highland Park, Michigan, to work as an internal medicine intern. Though I had finished medical school, I had not yet completed my internship. I was the first intern from Bombay University to be granted permission by the dean of the medical school to fulfill the remaining requirements of my internship year abroad.
Viren and I got married on May 31, 1970, in a traditional Bombay wedding. We had a short honeymoon in Ooty, a hill station in south India. We were still trying to know each other, but we had fallen in love and we had a wonderful time. One month after our wedding, on June 28, 1970, we left India for our adventure in the United States. Neither we nor our families knew that this adventure would continue for a lifetime, that America would be the place where we would fulfill our dreams, raise a family, and find a new home.
As we set off to America with borrowed money, the future was totally unknown to us. We had never traveled on an airplane and had never been away from home. We did not know anyone in Highland Park, Michigan.
Viren began work as soon as we arrived on July 1, 1970. Because he worked fifteen to twenty hours every day at the hospital, I took care of our day-to-day survival. We hardly had any time to spend together.
Each month, Viren brought his paycheck home and placed it in my hands. He did not ask where I was spending the money. One day I asked him if he worried that someday I could disappear with his hard-earned dollars. He responded without a moment's hesitation. He said that if I were to disappear with his checks, he would have so much more to cry about than the lost money. I was touched by his level of trust and loyalty. From that day on, I knew that together, Viren and I could overcome any obstacle that came our way.
For over thirty years, Viren and I have pursued our individual careers. My successful academic career was greatly enabled by Viren's emotional support and his willingness to share in the upbringing of our children.
One year, I was invited to give a commencement speech to the graduates of St. John's College in Queens, New York City. Many of those graduates were female immigrants from all over the world. During my speech, I reminded the graduates that the corollary to the famous saying is also true: "Behind every successful woman, there is always a man." I told the graduates that in my case, that man was my husband. I received loud applause from the audience; most of them were the spouses of these female graduates.
I migrated to the United States of America with three partners. One is my husband, Viren; two, my love for education and travel; and three, my Indian accent. I am happy to say that none of these partners have deserted me so far.
A Lifetime Of Firsts
"You've got to write about your experiences as an immigrant," friends and acquaintances have told me. They believe that these experiences have so much to convey about human resilience.
For me and Viren, life as immigrants in America involved numerous new and exciting experiences. Though some were eye-opening and others challenging, all of these "firsts" informed our knowledge of our new country and have given us cherished, and sometimes hilarious, memories to look back on.
My First American Friend
Arriving in Michigan in 1970, I began to learn new ways of life and soon realized how culturally different we were from native-born Americans.
Coming from India, where people have a range of brown-colored skin, I quickly understood that we were neither white nor black Americans. My real asset was that I could converse in English, and I did not hesitate to ask people for help, which I invariably received. Viren and I realized that because he was working such long hours, it would be very difficult for me to do the same at the same time. We decided that I would wait to start my training and would instead find paramedical jobs with fixed hours. During this time I was able to meet people of all colors and ethnicities and educate myself about American culture, which was totally new to us. I realized that my soul was peaceful in this new country. I was beginning to find my real self.
My first new friend in Highland Park was a black nurse named Cora Chatman. We worked together in the operating room at Highland Park Hospital, where I had gotten a job as a surgeon's assistant. She liked my innocence, but she was concerned that I was totally naïve.
Cora was my cultural ambassador, educator, and protector. She told me about the tensions between whites and blacks where we lived and worked. She and I watched the movie—"Roots"—together, and I learned the history of black Americans' experience of slavery, the civil war, and the civil rights movement.
Despite our differences, Cora and I had a lot in common. She had a master's degree in education; she spoke elegantly and was culturally sensitive. She had been raised by a single mother. She was independent-minded and determined to overcome all odds. I identified with her values, which bonded us for a lifetime. Later we visited her in California, where she had moved and subsequently married and had a child. We talked about child-rearing issues, and this time I was the experienced mentor, because I already had my first child, Manisha. As time flew by, we continued to talk regularly on the phone, and when Manisha got married, I invited Cora and her family. Cora went out and bought herself a saree, and all of them participated in the traditional wedding dances. We still exchange Christmas cards with summaries of all the year's events, and when we talk on the phone now, it is as if we were never apart.
Our First Car
Shortly after we arrived in Highland Park, Viren and I bought our first car, a teal Chevy Nova, for $2,500. We were in our twenties, had just moved to America, and were excited by the mere thought that we were going to be car owners. Only very wealthy people owned cars in India at that time, and no one in our families had ever owned a car.
We had already taken the written exam for a driver's license. We were not required to take a driving test because we had gotten international driver's licenses in Bombay before we left. However, we had never driven a car with power steering and power brakes, nor had we ever driven on the right side of the street (India uses the British system in which people drive on the left side of the street). So it was quite an adventure for us to buy a car and just drive away.
Our new car gave us the freedom to better explore our new country. We spent many years traveling, learning, and making memories in our beloved teal Chevy Nova.
My First Job in New York
After Viren completed a year of internship, we moved from Michigan to New York City. I worked at various paramedical jobs while Viren completed his final two years of training as a resident in internal medicine. My first job in New York was as a surgeon's assistant in an abortion clinic in Manhattan's Union Square. I had found it through an employment agency. In addition to assisting the obstetrician, I enjoyed talking to the women about their reasons for getting an abortion.
The women who came to the clinic were of all cultures; some of them were immigrants, some were from other parts of the United States. I noticed that none of them came with a family member or the father of the fetus. Most of them looked sad, and many expressed tremendous guilt. They felt comfortable talking to me, although I was not a trained counselor.
One morning, I arrived at work as usual, only to find that the place was empty. The owner of the store next door told me that the place had been busted during the night because it was an illegal operation. I was very confused. Wow, I was a new immigrant working for an illegal operation! Cora had been right to think I was naïve. I later learned that at that time, abortion was illegal in New York and most other states as well. This explained why the women had come from far and wide and usually came by themselves.
I learned more about these women and the cultural norms of the United States than they learned from me. Providing an empathetic ear and some common-sense counseling was one of the experiences that sparked my interest in specializing in psychiatry.
Our First House
From 1970 through 1978, we lived in three apartments: one in Highland Park, Michigan, and two in Upper Manhattan. Then, after being in this country for eight years, we were finally able to fulfill our American Dream of owning our first house.
In 1977, I began my final year of residency training in psychiatry, and Viren had started to work as an attending physician. We were financially stable, with enough savings for a down payment. Our older daughter, Manisha, was five years old, and I was expecting our second child. It was the right time to look for a house, so that Manisha could start her formal education in a public school.
We wanted to live within half an hour from the hospitals in the Bronx where we both worked. We had searched the lists of highly acclaimed public schools; Westchester County seemed to be the right place to look. We decided to concentrate on looking in Scarsdale. Our goal was to find a house that was ten to fifteen years old, with central air-conditioning, located on one-half acre of land, in the price range of $125,000-$150,000.
We began to look for a house in late summer to early fall of 1977. I was to finish my residency in June 1978, the same month that our second child was due. We wanted to close on the house by March. With this plan in mind, we contacted a real estate agency and started looking at houses in the Scarsdale area. Our real estate agent was a friendly and patient lady. We saw eighty houses in Scarsdale with her. None of these houses fit the bill, and our contract with her came to an end.
Winter was fast approaching. We knew that it would be impossible to look for houses in the winter, and so we were not likely to close on a house by March 1978 as we had planned. We were disheartened.
On the first Sunday in December 1977, I was reading the real estate section of the New York Times. A house in Edgemont (next to Scarsdale) was listed by the owner. We called him immediately, and he told us that someone had seen the house early that morning and had made an offer. I was very disappointed because without even seeing the house, I knew I would have liked it. The owner took our phone number and promised to contact us if the deal did not go through. Though we had lost hope, we went to see the house from the outside and wished that it could be ours.
Four weeks passed. We had stopped looking at houses. Then, one Sunday, the kind gentleman in Edgemont called us and said that the people who had made an offer on the house were not able to obtain a mortgage. He invited us to come and see the house as he was planning to list it again in the New York Times.
Excitedly, we set off. The house was twenty-six years old, though every room was renovated. It did not have central air-conditioning, though it did have individual units in each room. It was sitting on one-third, not one-half, of an acre of land. This house did not meet any of our criteria for our dream house. However, Viren and I both fell in love with it. It was meant for us. We did not want to leave. We visited each room several times and visualized raising our family in this house. The owner allowed us to use his family room for a private discussion.
Viren and I did not always see eye-to-eye on every major issue, but this was a unanimous decision. We loved the house, even though it did not fulfill any of the requirements we had set up six months earlier. We made an offer, and the owner accepted it on the spot. We were delighted and grateful.
We closed on the house at 201 Ferndale Road in Edgemont in March 1978, just as we had planned. This was our first house: the home in which we were able to fulfill our dreams of raising a family.
Establishing An Identity
When we came to America, we quickly became immersed in a completely different society from the one in which we had been raised. We were happy to learn about American society and culture and were quickly able to join the "melting pot" of New York. Since we were steeped in the culture of our birth, we did not feel any need to maintain our cultural heritage. It was only through the eyes and experiences of our first daughter, Manisha, that we realized the need to develop a cultural, racial, ethnic and religious identity within the "salad bowl" of American society. Because really, America is not a melting pot, it is more like a salad bowl or a cultural mosaic in which different groups retain their uniqueness while serving a common goal.
After our year in Michigan, we lived in New York City and worked with people of many different nationalities and cultures. We had no difficulty merging in this diverse group. We had African-American colleagues, European-American colleagues, and a few Asian-American colleagues as well. The majority of our friends were immigrants. We all were different and our racial differences were never a topic of discussion, though it was clear to Viren and me that the color of one's skin played a big role in American society.
Excerpted from An Uncompromising ACTIVIST by Nalini Juthani. Copyright © 2013 Nalini Juthani. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse LLC.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations.................... ix
Author's Note.................... xiii
Part 1: The View Through an Immigrant's Eyes.................... 1
Chapter 1. From Those Who Have Been Given A Lot, A Lot Is Expected......... 3
Chapter 2. The Adventure Begins.................... 7
Chapter 3. A Lifetime Of Firsts.................... 17
Chapter 4. Establishing An Identity.................... 27
Part 2: The Building Blocks of a Life.................... 35
Chapter 5. Best Friends.................... 37
Chapter 6. Growing Up as a Woman in India.................... 43
Chapter 7. A Faraway Friend.................... 55
Chapter 8. I Always Thought I Would See Her Again.................... 61
Chapter 9. My Mother.................... 67
Chapter 10. Journey To The Land Of My Ancestors.................... 71
Chapter 11. The Next Generations.................... 79
Part 3: Values Through Adversity.................... 99
Chapter 12. Enduring Values.................... 101
Chapter 13. Nurturing and Teaching.................... 105
Chapter 14. Lessons From My Taxi Drivers.................... 113
Chapter 15. Awareness of Mortality.................... 119
Chapter 16. "Keep the Bond and Always Stick Together".................... 123
Chapter 17. A Sudden Grievous Loss.................... 127
Chapter 18. The Fire of 2012.................... 135
Chapter 19. Pearls of Wisdom.................... 141
Interview I: Viral.................... 149
Interview II: Manisha.................... 169
Interview II: Kapila.................... 175
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