Like many of you, I often feel as if I were born several times in my life. First time was, of course, when I arrived from my mother’s womb in a country far away from where I am today. I was reborn when I had to flee from that country in the dark of night. Then, when I barely survived the mayhem of a revolution, I received the gift of life once more. Two countries and three births later, I arrived in America. I consider that to be the beginning of a new birth. For the fourth time – mind you.
The letter that brought a twist to my unpredictable existence in America arrived in the mail on a Friday. It was a job offer from a start-up company in San Francisco. My plan to go back to India was delayed – at least for the time being. The news of our immediate departure from the small Midwestern town created waves at our weekend gatherings.
“The’re going to California,” is how we were introduced to friends.
“Where in California?”
“Near San Francisco.”
We felt like mini-celebrities. Some senior members of the gathering who had already experienced the west coast informed us about the good things about California: that many foreigners lived there, so race relations were much better there than in the Midwest; that there were more Asian groceries; and, of course, the California weather. They also briefed us about the bad things: that the house prices were very high and the roads were congested.
Then one day we flew to the Bay Area. We arrived when my first child was barely a month old. My new job was in a small bio-medical company in Mountain View, near Middlefield Road and San Antonio Road. I was their sole engineer at the time. The company was in perpetual financial distress. Employees seemed to leave every now and then and new people were hired to replace them.
Then one day the appointment of a new CEO was announced. We were told that he had an MBA from a world famous business school nearby. The founder of the company, a balding gentleman with an MD degree, was rumored to be going on an extended leave. Many more rumors followed. Every now and then you would see workers talking in hushed voices. Within several months, we were informed that the founder had quit the company.
“For personal reasons,” the CEO mentioned. But the founder himself never came to tell us goodbye.
“He has been fired,” said a colleague, rolling his eyes. “You know!”
That same year, one evening before Christmas, the new CEO called me in his office to discuss our projects. After the usual pleasantries, we talked about the progress of our work and the requirements of our mini-project. He mentioned that the company was going through a difficult time.
“It’s tough,” he mentioned, as he brought up his eyes from the papers spread on his table. “We have no choice but to consolidate our operations.”
“As a preliminary step,” he said, “all new projects will be cancelled.”
I felt shocked. He mentioned that the management had to make some unpleasant decisions and that some of the important employees would have to let go.
“Unfortunately,” he was compassionate, his eyes displaying pain, “you just happened to be one of them”.
“Please don’t take it personally,” he continued, “with your experience you won’t have much difficulty finding a good position in a company in the valley.” He was eloquent about my achievements and acknowledged the important job I did for the company.
“We have a package for you,” he said. I was given one week of pay for each year that I was in the company.
“The company will pay for your health insurance for the rest of the year,” he sympathetically mentioned. “And you should apply for unemployment as soon as possible”.
He profusely thanked me for being understanding. “There are some empty boxes,” he led me outside the office and pointed towards a heap, ” in case you may need them”.
He extended his hands to shake with mine and I mechanically reciprocated and then I came back to my office. I cleared my desk, packed my books and papers, and drove home. I was devastated.
When I broke the news that evening to my wife Shoma, the light in her face went out. I was the sole breadwinner of the family. What would happen to us? We had a small child and my wife was a stay-at-home mom. That was how we decided to stay for a few years till the baby starts attending school. But our world changed. Uncertainty was unbearable and the weeks turned into months. Shoma feared that there must have been some evil influence on our lives. And so, with the counsel of her Bengali friends in the valley, she bought a tiny sculpture of the elephant god Ganesh from Jal Tarang, the local Indian grocery-cum movie rental store. On occasion, the store owner also served as a notary public. I felt a little surprised by her action. Ganesh is not worshiped that devoutly in our part of Bengal. But the influence of our North Indian friends here in America made us respectf Him more. Friends told Shoma that Ganesh is a “jagroto debota,” – He fulfilled His devotees’ wishes more promptly. I certainly needed that.
Though I have been ambivalent about the existence of God, the financial situation weakened me to temporarily go along with her wishes. It had happened to me before: if the crisis was big, I forced myself to be a believer in a higher power. Rather, I didn’t have any choice but to be. But as the crisis loosened its grip, so did my faith. And then I started questioning about the existence of an Almighty when so many ills plagued humanity. I debated such philosophical topics with my friends over singara and red wine in our weekend evening gatherings. I have yet to come to a logical conclusion of this contradiction within me! But I followed what my wife asked me to do. I took a shower, put on clean clothes and with due reverence, I suspended the sculpture above our main door. That way we would be automatically blessed by the Lord when we walked through the door to go out. That’s the idea.
‘A picture of Ganesh on a kulo would be more auspicious,’ one of Shoma’s close friends suggested. But Shoma felt that a sculpture would look more modern. A kulo, a winnowing fan made of bamboo splinters and used in Bengali homes back in India, may look dated and could draw unintended attention from our white, mostly Jewish, American neighbors.
Then, after a couple of months of worry and after several unsuccessful interviews, I did land a new job. It was also in another start-up company. I’m not sure if God had any part in it. I say that because that new company also folded after a year and a half. The small venture capital firm that had invested in the company wanted their money back. The overall economy continued its downward spiral. And the partners fought among themselves. They decided to part ways. In the process, though, I became unemployed again.