Krishan Bedi came to the United States in December of 1961 at the tender age of twenty. He had only $300 in his pocket, and he had made it out of his small village in India on sheer faith, determined to get education in the US. For him, there was no option but to succeedso he began his new life in Knoxville, Tennessee, where he had to adapt to the culture shock not only of being in the US but a Punjabi man in the South in the 1960s.
Engineering a Life is an examination of Bedi’s life, and how he has handled the plethora of curve balls thrown his way with determination, humor, and an unwavering faith that everything would work out. This is a book about values and faith and the importance of friendship, family, and hard work. It’s a story about achieving the American Dream, proving that no matter how thoroughly you map out your life’s journey, no matter how many blueprints you draw up, when you veer off the course you’ve plottedas we all do, somehow, in the endyou end up where you’re supposed to be.
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The Muslims are coming! The Muslims are coming!" The cry of the watchmen rang through our small village of Malaudh in Punjab, India. Gunfire sounded in the distance as shop owners hurried to close up shop, fearing the dozens of men on horseback brandishing weapons and riding our way. My father, a shop owner himself, rushed home to help my mother herd me and my siblings to the outskirts of Malaudh, where a maharaja, a wealthy landowner, had built a fortress known as a qila. Shouts filled the air as dozens of families rushed for safety. Six years old at the time, I struggled to keep up with my parents. The chaos around me struck fear in my heart, and my feet trod the dirt path quickly.
It was the year 1947, and as Hindus, we found ourselves fearful of the anger and hatred set in motion by the partition of India. The partition drew new geographic lines, turning the northern part of India into a new nation, Pakistan, and forcing many Muslims to move north to the new country. The Hindus living in what is now called Pakistan were forced to migrate south. My family and I lived at the heart of the conflict because there were many Muslims in our state of Punjab, and they did not want to move. The partition bred violence — Muslims killing Hindus and Hindus killing Muslims.
The fortress, surrounded by fifteen-foot-high walls, covered ten acres, and contained three residential buildings, stables, a jeep, and an open area for the water buff alo to graze. My family and I felt safe with the guards pointing their guns through small holes in the wall, allowing them to shoot if the enemy came near.
Approximately two hundred families from Malaudh entered the qila and waited in an open area. My two older sisters and older brother formed a tight circle around me. My father, Mukandi Lal, paced back and forth, occasionally speaking in serious tones to other men standing nearby.
Seeing the fearful look in my eyes, my mother, Maya Wanti, spoke soft encouraging words. The early afternoon heat thickened, and dust rose in little clouds at any movement of wind or person. The heat and dust were a constant part of our lives, but this new thing, this violence and fear, made everything else fall to the background. As the noise outside the fortress grew closer, my father stood straight and still, like an immovable tree. Angry shouts and the thunder of hooves echoed outside the walls. A few gunshots blasted the air as the men passed us by on their way to the next town. My mother's soothing voice came like a powerful mantra to drown out the frightening sounds. She prayed to the gods of our Hindu faith, asking for safety and protection, for blessings to fall on us. Grandmother sat quietly. My father's uncle, whom we called Grandfather, also spoke strong, hopeful words to us.
The leaders of India thought it would be a peaceful migration, but after the hasty withdrawal of the British, centuries of peaceful coexistence was laid waste as Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs engaged in a bloodbath that killed two million people. Rumors reached our village describing the ghost trains carrying nothing but corpses with their heads removed from their bodies, an act executed by both sides. With the angry Muslims crossing deeper into India every passing day, no one was safe, either on the roads or in the villages.
My family fled to the qila four times during the next few months. The Muslims could not reach us behind our high walls, and each time, we emerged from our hiding places to resume our ordinary lives.
Ordinary life for me took place in a small house behind my father's cloth shop. Like most homes in Malaudh, ours had a front yard where we kept our water buffalo. Every morning, I led her to a common place, and from there, a village boy steered the herd of buffalos and cows to a field to graze. Despite its small size, the village of Malaudh was the kasba, the center of commerce, for the surrounding thirty-six villages to buy their goods. Neither Malaudh nor the other villages had running water or electricity. Those too poor to afford a hand pump drew water for cooking and bathing from a central well, located in each residential street. My family owned a hand pump, but occasionally, we still used the well near our house.
School became a regular part of my life as I progressed through primary school, middle school, and finally, high school. Every day, I walked a mile outside the village to the high school, a compound of two buildings behind an iron gate, where we learned math, science, history, geography, English, and Hindi. One hundred and fifteen boys from Malaudh and the surrounding villages attended the school, Our Hindi teacher held class beneath a large neem (Azadirachta indica) tree. Its cooling shade refreshed us from the overbearing midday sun as we drank water out of clay jars, which kept the water from the hand pump cold.
Teachers did not hesitate to discipline with physical punishment, hitting us with sticks or slapping our faces if we misbehaved, answered incorrectly in class, or failed to complete the homework. They fabricated ways to embarrass students as well. One day I was sitting in class, pretending to listen to the physics teacher. The teacher asked a student a question. The student made a show of thinking hard. "I-I don't remember," he finally said.
"This is the third time you have come unprepared to class," the teacher said sternly. "Come to the front."
The student slowly stood and trudged to the front of the room.
"Bend forward," the teacher said.
Frowning, the student leaned over, his arms dangling near his toes.
"Now put your arms through your legs and touch your ears." We all watched anxiously, yet curiously, thankful we were not in his position.
The boy bent his knees so that he crouched awkwardly, his rear end sticking in the air. He grimaced as he stretched his arms as far as he could through his legs, finally latching on to the tips of his ear lobes. Several students snickered. The murgha (chicken) pose is one of the more humiliating punishments the teachers used. If the student lowered from the position even for an instant, the teacher would strike him with a long stick on his rear end.
After school, I helped my father in his shop, which adjoined the back of our house. The wooden shelves held stacks of beautifully woven, vibrantly colored fabrics. My father would greet the customers and ask what they would like to drink. Then I'd bring them either lemonade or hot tea. The drinks made the customers feel close to my father, and they would not bargain too much.
A thin woven rug covered the floor, and on top of the rug, we placed a sheet. My father sat on a round white pillow, signifying he was the owner, and the customers sat cross-legged before him. After an initial greeting, the customers would tell him what sort of cloth they were looking for (blue shirt material, perhaps), and then my father would order me to bring several bolts of cloth for the customers to examine. Once they made their choice, my father measured and cut the cloth before passing it to me to fold and wrap in paper. On weekends, I sprinkled water on the dirt road in front of the shop to keep the air free of dust. When the shop closed, I helped my father count money until 7:30 p.m.
My father was strict, well-built, and hard-working. He managed his income wisely, spent frugally, and never wasted a rupee (Indian Currency). At times, he exhibited a demanding character. For instance, if my mother did not prepare the food to his taste, he would dump the meal on the floor and chide her. With the help of my paternal grandmother, she would prepare the meal again. I couldn't bear to see my mother upset as she bent to pick up the food, mumbling under her breath and crying to herself.
My mother was kind and hard-working. Every day, she rose at dawn while everyone was still sleeping so she could make our hot tea and pump water for our baths. Afterwards, she prepared food for the water buffalo. While we washed ourselves in the tepid water from the pump and drank sweetened black tea, Mother cooked a breakfast of prantha, whole wheat bread layered with ghee, yogurt, and potatoes cooked in spices.
My mother held a special place in my heart. She personified love by placing grain on the ant hills after it rained so they could eat too. Most days, she fed three of six young sisters who lived nearby. Their parents did not feed them much because they could not carry the family name as a son could. The girls came to our home, and my mother snuck them chapatis and sabzi behind a door where no one could see them. My father and brother guessed what was going on and were not happy about it, but my mother continued to help the girls anyway.
My mother also fed a crippled man who would come to our house around 2:00 p.m. every day. He sat, squatting on the balls of his feet, and used two wooden pads to drag himself across the ground. The man said kind words to my mother and my siblings. "One day, you will be a big man," he told me. "Cars will be all around you."
At that time, cars were prestigious, not common luxury at all. If someone owned a car, he was respected and considered rich. I couldn't imagine how his prediction would come true. Later, I learned that a man gave my brother's classmate a similar blessing. Soon after, my brother's friend moved to New Delhi, where he became a traffic policeman. Cars were all around him, but he did not own any. I hoped his prediction would not turn out the same way for me.
* * *
During my last year of high school, the National Board of Examination became my primary focus. There were only two years of schooling at my village high school, and the teachers spent the entire time preparing us for the exams we would take in March of our second year. These exams were our passage to better education, and if we did well, we qualified for college pre-med and pre-engineering programs. If the exam scores fell within the middle range, students qualified for degrees in liberal arts. However, if a student failed even one subject, that student had to take the exam again as many times as he needed.
The National Board Exams began on March 1 and ended on March 23, 1956. My father arranged for me to stay in Mandi Ahmed-Garh, the testing center, with a family I did not know. Mandi Ahmed-Garh was considered a small city, thirteen miles away from Malaudh. At that time, I felt a mixture of excitement at being in a new place, as well as apprehension about taking the exams, hoping I'd do well and not disappoint my family by failing.
The exam results declared three months later in June 1956. I walked into the chemist's shop and asked to see The Tribune, an English newspaper the chemist purchased and brought to Malaudh. If we passed, our ID numbers appeared in the paper along with our total score on the exams. I skimmed the columns of numbers until I spotted mine. Thirty-five percent! Scoring below thirty-three percent meant I would need to retake the exams. Grateful to have not embarrassed my parents in such a way, I walked home with a bounce in my step, eager to share the news. My parents, ecstatic to know I'd passed, congratulated me and spread the word to their relatives and friends. They also passed out sweets to our neighbors and to the poor who lived in the surrounding area.
Over the next three years, I attended the Vishvakarma Institute of Engineering Technology, an engineering college in Ludhiana, working toward a diploma in civil engineering. My time at the institute gave me a taste of living in a place much bigger than Malaudh, and in some ways, it seemed more sophisticated. I made a good friend named Jasbir Singh Mann. We liked to study on the floor, and when we grew tired of reading and memorizing terms, we fell asleep on the floor surrounded by books and papers. We felt that studying and sleeping on the floor showed that we were serious, hard-working students.
In the summer of 1959, I received my Diploma in Civil Engineering, second division, not without some bribery and approach to the teachers. I treated the professors to dinner at a nice restaurant or took them to the movie theater in exchange for questions on the test. In addition, Jasbir helped me study for the final exams. At Vishvakarma, most students completed two to four years of college in physics, chemistry, or math programs. Students at this school usually didn't qualify for admission at a more prestigious engineering university.
My parents were happy I had completed three years of Diploma in Civil Engineering in one try, especially since my brother twice failed his final year of engineering college before passing the exam. My parents arranged a big celebration in our village when I came home. My father proudly distributed sweets among the poor and to his colleagues, and he sent sweets to our relatives. Once the celebration was over, I asked myself what I would do next. If I was lucky, I might be able to work as an overseer, supervising the construction of buildings, roads, and dams; or a surveyor, inspecting land to determine elevations or depths where a new road or building would be constructed. However, a diploma from a small, unknown college such as the Vishvakarma Institute was not impressive, and most employers looked for workers with experience or a bachelor's degree from a well-known university.
My brother worked as an overseer at the time and would tell me stories about his boss, the Sub-Divisional Officer (SDO) who was responsible for a large, geographic area called a sub-division and had much more authority over the overseers working for him. In a way, he was like a ruler or rajah, and his chauffeur drove him all over the territory he was responsible for. Did I want to work as an overseer with little authority over anyone or a surveyor who had even less responsibility and power?
The SDO position appealed to me more than the others, but I discovered that I could only qualify for the title after eight or ten years of service as an overseer. I wasn't sure if I could get a job as an overseer with my engineering diploma from a small unknown college. It wouldn't mean anything to anyone, and I didn't have any on-the-job experience to qualify right off the bat.
I decided to take an examination at a well-respected engineering college in Nilokheri, 150 miles from my hometown. If I passed the exam in all subjects, I could find a good job as an overseer and eventually become an SDO.
My brother arranged for me to stay in a room near the college, but several days into my stay, I developed a bad rash under my arms. It was painful and scary to look at, and even worse, it prevented me from preparing for the exams. The frightening appearance of the rash worried me. After several days of no improvement, I consulted a doctor. He administered eight shots into my arms, and slowly the rashes disappeared. Somehow, I still could not concentrate on studying for the exams, which were spread out over a three-week period. Before taking each exam, I knew I would not pass. It was no surprise when the newspaper declared the results, and my roll number was missing. My dream of becoming an SDO was ruined. Not knowing what to do or where to go, my only option was to stay at home and work with my father.
* * *
The sun shone brightly through the front door of my father's shop as I brought a cup of freshly brewed tea to a customer haggling over prices with my father. She took a sip. "Thank you, Krishan," she said. "Just how I like it." The middle-aged woman was one of the regulars, but she still persisted in bargaining over prices with my father. "I have children to feed," she'd always say. "I can't be taking whatever first offer of price you throw at me, Respected Mukandi Lal."
"I have a family to feed as well," my father would say. "I can't always sell my goods for almost free."
I began folding bolts of fabric and organizing them by their colors. A moment later, my father walked over to me. "We reached a good price this time," he said. "She is a good customer, but she is always trying to swindle me."
I reached for an unrolled bolt of red cloth and began folding it carefully. "It must have been the tea. She is always happier when she gets a drop of tea in her."
My father laughed. "Yes, Krishan. I don't know how I've done without you these few months. It's been a hard time with you gone. You are a big help to me."
I reached for another bolt of cloth without meeting his eyes. How could I tell him that I didn't want to work in his shop anymore? What would he say when he found out I wanted to go to America?
My desire to travel to America began several weeks earlier when my father told me about my two cousins who traveled to America, or "Amrika," as most Indians pronounced it.
Excerpted from "Engineering A Life"
Copyright © 2018 Krishan Bedi.
Excerpted by permission of BookSparks.
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