Shaun Illingworth: This begins an interview with Pratibha Bhat. Am I pronouncing that correctly?
Pratibha Bhat: That is correct.
SI: The date is April 17, 2019. The interview is taking place in New Brunswick, New Jersey. The interviewers are Shaun Illingworth and Lauren Smith. Thank you very much for coming in today. We appreciate it.
PB: Thank you for the opportunity.
SI: To begin, can you tell us where and when you were born?
PB: I was born in Belgaum and that is in Karnataka state of India on December 1st 1972.
Lauren Smith: Can we start off with some background about your parents, their experiences before you were born and their history.
PB: I will start off with my father's history. My father, Vasant Joshi was born in a small village called as Honnavar. And it is located in the Karnataka State of India. And my father- he is a very well-read man, well-disciplined and is an educationist. So, he told me often about stories from his childhood, his village life, and I would like to describe some of the stories to you. Okay, so in his village, he had no electricity, no telephone, and no radio. And you wouldn't believe it. He did not have any stores in his village. He often had to walk barefoot to school. And his typical day started by drawing water out of the village, there was no tap water. So, he had to draw water out of the well. And he told me about houses in the village how they were covered with Paddy grass. And often when the paddy grass was wet, the snakes, would fall out and fall on the ground. And it was such a scary experience. I'm just imagining it. And I cannot believe that snakes would fall out of the roof.
All his life, he had to study under the street lamp, because there was no electricity in his village, my grandfather, that is my father's father, his name was Narahari Joshi and he was a priest. So, we are Hindus, and my grandfather owned the temple. And he was a priest in that temple. But besides being a priest, he was also the Zamindar or the owner of a small island called Halgeri. I would like to explain the zamindari system, because before India got independence in 1947, it was ruled by Britishers. And during the British rule, there was the landlord system, meaning that these landlords owned a lot of islands or lands, and they collected revenue and taxes from these lands from their tenants. My grandfather was a zamindar of a big island. And when we were children, he would take us in a small boat, cross the river to the island and the local tenants there, would welcome us. They loved him a lot, he was so well respected. And, you know, these locals were such simple people, they did not even wear clothing, and they only covered their private parts with loincloth. But after the Land Reform Act, what happened is all these land landlords, they lost ownership of their islands, and my grandfather, he lost ownership over this island.
And these tenants became the owners of their cultivated lands. But you know, they loved my grandfather so much, because he had built schools in the village and he had also helped them so much, that they continued visiting him many years, even after the land Reform Act took place. So that's the history of my father.
SI: You mentioned that your grandfather owned a Temple and how does that work?
PB: The temple is located in the family home that my father lived and has been in our family for three generations. But you know, now that my father doesn't live there anymore, the temple is converted into a GuruKul or an ashram where they train these young people to attain priesthood. It is a trust now, and they train young people for priesthood through spirituality and philosophy.
SI: Can you tell us about your mother?
PB: My mother Shakuntala Joshi was born in Belgaum city. And my mother, she was a very vibrant personality, and had a passion for life. And I think both my parents loved us dearly, and were there for us, they gave us this unconditional love. My mother was an activist too. Her parents, my grandparents, before they came to Belgaum city, they lived in a small village near Goa, it is called as Kurdi. And my grandmother (Tara Barve) was not educated. And she would always tell me, to study, work hard and get ahead in life. So, my mother's mother, my grandparents, they came from times when they were literally chased by the tiger. My grandmother would tell me stories about how she used to be chased by the tiger. And for me, it was a very interesting story and I would like to describe one such instance. My grandmother's day to day chores was to go, herd the cows. She had to take all these cows to the nearby forest. One day when she was herding, the cows got very disturbed, and they started running everywhere. The animals can sense a carnivore and she realized there is a tiger as tigers were very common in that land. And she didn't know what to do, because all the cows dispersed, she lost her way to home. And luckily, she had her favorite cow. And she told me that she held on to the tail of this cow. And the cow ran through the forest for her life. And my grandmother literally held on for her dear life. And both of them reached home safely. They came from times when literally they were chased by the Tigers.
LS: Can you tell us more about your siblings?
PB: Yes, I have one brother. And his name is Shripad Joshi. And he immigrated here about 18 years back. He lives with his family here in Dallas, Texas. And he works for the Federal Reserve.
SI: How did your parents meet?
PB: My parents had an arranged marriage. Arranged marriages are very common in India, even now it's about 80 to 90 percent. Theirs's was a match made by their parents. And that's how they met in Belgaum.
SI: Can you kind of describe maybe your earliest memories of your town?
PB: Most of my childhood and my young adult days I spent in Belgium city, as I said, that's in Karnataka state of India. And Belgaum then, was not very spread out. It's a small city. But I lived in the suburbs of Belgaum city and the city enjoys year-round good climate. And Belgaum is an educational hub. So, it is surrounded by a lot of colleges, a lot of engineering colleges, medical colleges. And my mother's parents, my grandparents, lived quite close by and we would visit them all the time. The joint families were very common during that time. When I went to visit my grandparents, I would see my grandparents and meet my uncle, aunties, their children, my cousins, I even had a great grandmother living in the house. It was a great experience meeting all of them. And I would either bicycle or I would take a Tuk Tuk(3 wheeler) it's called as an autorickshaw, as we could not afford a car. We were a middle-class family. Besides visiting my grandparents, I spent a lot of time with my childhood friend. Her name was Audrey Falcao. The reason I'm mentioning this is because she was a very good friend of mine. And she was a Catholic friend of mine. And my parents were okay with that. But my grandparents since they come from a very conservative, traditional society, they were opposed to the idea of me having a Catholic friend. The main reason being that we are Hindus, and we eat a lot of vegetarian food. And at my friend's place, they would serve meat. My grandparents were initially opposed to that idea. And they tried to discourage me initially. But you won't believe how much their ideologies changed over the years. In my Hindu wedding, years later, my Catholic friend was my bridesmaid. When I was dressed in all Hindu dresses with Hindu fine jewelry, my Catholic friends, she was dressed in her Catholic Bridesmaid Dress, and she was allowed to perform all the rituals too. So, people change over time, and their ideologies change for the better.
SI: Give us a sense of how it seems like religion was a part of your life growing up, how that was practiced like the way you celebrate holidays, things like that?
PB: India is like a melting pot of different cultures and has about 29 states now. India has different religions too, we have Hindus, Muslims, and Christians. And I mentioned I'm a Hindu. So basically, I celebrated every Hindu Holiday. I even celebrated Christmas because of my Catholic friends. I would go to her house and spend the holidays celebrating Christmas. I had a Muslim friend too. But in my home, we celebrated all the Hindu festivals right from the Diwali, which is the festival of lights to Ganesh Chaturthi.
SI: What about your early schooling, what do you recall about that?
PB: During my early schooling days, we had something called the Belgaum border dispute going on. I will talk about that later. So, during this Belgaum border dispute, it was very unsafe to go to a Kanada speaking school or any other language speaking school because of the border dispute. So, what my parents did is, since it is unsafe to go to any linguistic majority school, they enrolled me in a Catholic school, we call them as a convent there or the missionary school and the Primary medium of language here was English. In our convent we had actual nuns. Like sisters and fathers, our principal was a Father. And discipline was strongly enforced at all times. And I in fact, studied three different languages. I studied English; we were not allowed to talk any other language. So, English was my primary language.
I studied Hindi, which is the most common official language spoken in India. And of course, I studied Kanada, which is the state language. But we were never forced to go to the religion class. Instead we had to attend a moral science class, and the Catholics students would go to the religion class, while we were asked to stay and study moral science.
My schooling I've enjoyed a lot. I've actually participated in a lot of cultural and extracurricular activities. I was a part of the drama or the theater. And I played different roles. And the funny thing is, these roles were not played in my local language. I had to talk in different languages. Some I didn't even understand and I had to memorize to play act the role. I played the role of Alexander the Great. And I won various debate competitions, but all in different languages.
LS: How was your family affected by this Border dispute? Did you speak Kanada or Marathi?
PB: At home we spoke Marathi. During my childhood, Belgaum border dispute was very common. So, in order to explain this to you I would like to explain what the dispute is about. Belgaum City, where I lived is on the border of two different states -Karnataka State and Maharashtra state. Karnataka state speaks Kanada as a language and Maharashtra state speaks Marathi. As I mentioned earlier, 29 States in India speak different languages, and the way people behave, talk, everything is different. But since Belgaum was on the border of both Karnataka and Maharashtra, we had half of them speak Kanada, half of them speak Marathi. But in the British time, what happened was that Belgaum was added to Bombay state which is in Maharashtra now. But after the policy of bifurcation based on linguistic majority, Belgaum had a lot of Kanada speaking people, so was added to the Karnataka state, but it had Marathi speaking people like my mom, and hence this dispute. And when I was growing up as a child, there would be violent riots everywhere. And our schools used to be closed because of these riots. And I would see people running around on the road and my grandmother would tell me to stay indoors, as it's dangerous. My mother was an activist. And in her young days, she actually attended these rallies. She strongly believed that Belgaum should be part of Maharashtra state. There was a party that was formed, it is called as Maharashtra Ekikaran Samiti(MES). And they were formed with the sole purpose of moving Belgaum back into Maharashtra and my mom strongly believed in this cause, as she spoke Marathi. She was tear gassed, when she attended these rallies and I think the police officers did this, to disperse the crowds. And she told me of instances from her young days when her eyes would burn so much, that no matter what you do, it will keep burning because of the tear gas and but she strongly believed in this cause. Belgaum is officially in Karnataka state now. MES party still exists.
SI: So, when you say schools closed, did the catholic school close too?
PB: In fact, all schools would be closed because of the border dispute riots. And catholic schools like my school would be closed too, for safety reasons.
SI: Your father was an academician?
PB: Yes, my father, Vasant Joshi, majored in law. His undergraduate and his master's was done in law (LLM) and he was an attorney for about four years. And then he continued to became the professor of a law college. He retired as a principal of a law college. And after that, he became the judge of people's court where they settle minor disputes. He has started various forums, against corruption and for consumer protection.
LS: So, you mentioned that your mom was Marathi speaking but what about your father and how did it affect their relationship?
PB: Actually, that is an interesting story. Our ancestors came from the Bombay state and we are supposed to be Maharashtrians or Marathi speaking. So, my mother, yes, since she was born in Belgaum, she spoke Marathi. She believed in the cause. My father grew up in Karnataka state where Kanada was the primary language as such, he got educated in Kanada school and his father spoke Marathi but my grandmother spoke Kanada. Though my father's education was in Kanada, he could fluently speak, both Kanada and Marathi. Often my parents would have a verbal debate if Kanada or Marathi is a better language.
SI: You know, what would often precipitate as violence, dispute between 2 people growing larger?
PB: I think in India, especially the violence is between different communities, whether it's Hindus or Muslims, or it's across languages. As I said, each state has a different language, and each state has different cultures too, those are the common factors for disputes. Many of these disputes are politically motivated.
SI: So, you stayed in convent till High school?
PB: All the way from elementary to my high school, I was in the convent, and the name of my school was St. Xavier's High School.
SI: Why did you get interested in Drama?
PB: Both my parents, they loved us very dearly. They were always there for us, but especially my father, he loved to participate in different activities, cultural activities. He encouraged me to participate, take part in debate competitions and in Drama. And I think I'm grateful for that, because that is why I feel I've turned out to be a good teacher now.
SI: Did your mother work outside of the home,
PB: My mother graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree but most of her life, she was a homemaker and did not work outside her home.
LS: It seems like both your parents are very passionate, and very involved. How did that influence you growing up?
PB: I am very grateful to my parents. They taught us good values and gave us good encouragement for both me and my brother. Coming from India and immigrating here was a very difficult experience, especially when you migrate to a new country. But my parents were always there, no matter what, whether it be providing support or helping financially.
SI: After schooling you went on to college. How did you make that decision where to go?
PB: Usually in India, the decision is based on your percentage, that is your score. And that pretty much makes your decision. So based on your score, we can choose the field we go to. So, either you go to the science side, or to the art side(liberal arts ). I finished my bachelor's in computer science and engineering, from Karnataka University, and the college name is GIT. And initially, computer science was not at all an easy subject for me, I struggled quite a bit. But our college was very progressive, and introduced a lot of new technologies to us. So that helped me finish my computer science engineering from GIT. And, you know, recently, in fact, I got to attend the 25 years alumni meet. Our college had organized Alumni meet. And it was such a wonderful experience meeting everyone, especially the professors. And I was fortunate to organize the US East Coast meet right here in the US. I have so many classmates here, I thought was a good idea to meet everyone and connect with our old friends. I was able to meet my classmates; I organized this event and was also the emcee for this event.
SI: What was college like then? Did you live on campus?
PB: I lived with my parents as I was a local resident. Belgaum is an educational hub. We have engineering colleges and medical colleges. So, in our college, we had a lot of students come from all parts of India, because there were not many colleges at that point of time. And our college, as I said, was very progressive. So, we had all the new technologies and my college had all the branches in it, right from mechanical to computer science. And in our college, we would get a lot of students from North India, from West Bengal, from all parts of the country. And these students lived in dorms. I had to commute with a scooter. That's a two-wheeler. College had many sports and I was good at badminton and was a part of the girl's badminton team. The female to male ratio is very low in engineering, especially during those times.
LS: How was your experience as a woman going to Engineering? What kind of messages you got from your parents: how they pushed you to get the education even though you were a minority?
PB: I don't want to generalize on that. Because you know, every society is different. But 25 years back when I graduated, they were not sincerely that many women especially in engineering field. Because the ideology then was different. And women, I think were less career oriented. But my parents always encouraged me. My parents' generation not many women worked. So, though my mother, she was Bachelor of Arts, she never worked, because the custom then was to manage the home. And but with me, like you can really see the connection there. Like my mother's mother is chased by a tiger in a village. My Mother, she finished her Bachelor of Arts, and she's a homemaker. And I, they encouraged me not only to finish my engineering to get a job, they even encouraged me to immigrate out of the country. Over generations there has been progress in our thought process and customs too.
SI: Any other memories stand out that affected you?
PB: Yes, I would like to talk about an incident that has affected me in my life as a young child. This is a burglary that happened in my house. And I want to talk about it because my mom, she's was very resilient. And she has not only survived the burglary where she almost lost her life but also fighting cancer. So, this is a big episode in my life. And in the movies, the burglaries look very dramatic. But in real life, they're very traumatic, and they can literally change the way you think. So, I was about 10 years old, and my brother is younger than me by three years. And my mom, and we were alone that day at our home, meaning that my father was traveling out of the town, and it was late in the night, about nine o'clock. And my mother happened to open the door, and we see this guy standing out. I was playing with my dolls in the corner. And my mom is talking to this person. And this person was like, trying to negotiate with her trying to sell her something, I think it was rice samples, is showing her different rice samples and saying "buy it, buy it". And she's trying to tell him "No, I'm not interested". And I think she did mention my husband is not home. And so, I kind of got bored with the conversation. And I walked to the other room where my brother was playing with his toys. And I started playing with him. And then there was like this deathly silence. And I get the sixth sense that something is really not right. So, I said, let me go out and check. And when I peep out the door, I see my mom is on the floor. She's covered with blood. And this guy, he has such a thick iron rod, it's about three inches in diameter. And he's beating her and beating her she's already fallen down. And I when I saw that I was only 10 years old. I was so shocked and freaked out. I didn't know what to do. So, I ran inside the room and I told my brother "I said mom is being hit". And the only thing I could think of was my own safety and my brother's safety. So, I saw an object kept there -a hard object kept next to me, I picked it up. And I said I need to defend myself because, I knew now that my mom is fallen, he would come after us. So, I took this object, I covered my brother behind me and I said you know what- I need to save my life. And we kept screaming at the top of our voice for I think forever. But it was at least half an hour. Because two days after that we both of us lost our voice as we had screamed that much. Our neighbors were not nearby because we had a big garden in between houses. And luckily for us after half an hour of screaming, my neighbor came running and saw that we were here locked in the house. So, the burglar had run away locking us in our home and my mom's head is covered with blood. And it's such a disturbing experience that I'm even not able to open the door now without checking if there is a stranger. The doctor said it was a miracle that my mom had survived, because hitting with such a huge rod could have damaged any part of the brain. But she didn't lose any of her faculties. She was in hospital for about a month. And she got about 20 stitches. But she survived it. Doctor said she's very resilient. And she had this passion for life and thanks to our quick screaming, it did help save her life.
SI: That's remarkable. Thank you.
SI: So, after your graduation, what did you think about as your next step in life?
PB: Here, I would like to talk about my marriage, because soon after my graduation, I got married. My husband, I met him in college, actually. And that's an important event in my life because I met the love of my life in college. And yes, he was my classmate. And you can imagine at that point of time, where arranged marriages were taking place, as I said, there are about 80 to 90% of arranged marriages. Here, I came to my father with the love match. My husband's name is Chetan. And he currently works as the Executive Director at JPMorgan Chase in New York. But that's our story. Because right after school, college, we simply got married. When I went to my father, and I told him that I'm in love and want to marry, my father was opposed to this idea, because love marriages were like, unknown in my family. And he was initially opposed to this, but when he met my husband and his parents, he realized that their thought processes match and they're very nice people. And actually, you know, both my parents and my in laws were opposed to the dowry system. Dowry system is the exchange of money or some monetary benefits between the bride's parents to the bridegroom. Both my parents and in laws were completely against dowry and my dad realized that his principles match and that my in laws are very progressive. And literally, we were married at the age of 21 years. And my husband is very supportive and a very caring person. Soon after marriage we did not have a job. So, we moved in with my in laws place and I stayed with them for about six months like a joint family. And then later on we got an opportunity- our first job in Pune city which is in Maharashtra state and my husband started working there in Tata Honeywell and I got my first job as a computer teacher in Tata Unisys(Tulec).
SI: We talked earlier, and you said, you hadn't really traveled much when you're younger. Right now, you're going to different areas or countries and anything stand out in terms of being different, the way people did things?
PB: I personally think travel experience is a great experience for everyone, because sincerely it opens your heart to different customs and traditions. And it broadens your perspective. And I'm very fortunate that I've traveled across many parts of Europe. I've traveled across parts of Asia, of course, India. I've been to Central America, which is Costa Rica, I've been to Mexico, Mexican culture is beautiful. And I've also been to the Caribbean islands, of course, and we have actually driven across the Route 66 and seen all the states that go across America. So, I've been very fortunate to travel and every country, every place that I've been to their language, customs cultures are so different, and yet you get to learn so much more from that, or they from you. So it's a great experience. Especially I want to talk about Costa Rica. Because in that place, I always even tell my students -now I say, they don't have much there, people live under tin roofs, literally, the houses are made of tin and they live in large families, but they're always smiling and happy. And I was just wondering how come they're so happy, the roads are not even paved. I even asked a local and I asked him, I said, "What do you do"? He said, we have big families, we work together, we eat together. And I think that makes a difference for them. But the products there are so natural- the food, the fruits, it's not the hybrid kind of mixture. It's like fresh from the farm. And I think the simple living and high thinking makes a huge difference. And similarly, with Europe- I travelled to Europe when there was no euro. So, I had to collect currencies from different countries. And I had to apply for visa for every country at that point of time. Everyone speaks their own language. This is about 15-20 years back; I have visited Europe. And there are some places like in some parts of Italy, they don't speak English. And I had lots of difficulty trying to find the train station. And I remember the first McDonald's I saw, I was so excited and I said "MCdee". The local food though I tried and liked, but was so excited to see the first McDonald's.
SI: So, we were talking about your first job as a teacher in Pune?
PB: The city was Pune, that is in Maharashtra State of India. So, my husband got his job as I mentioned in Tata Honeywell. And I became the computer teacher there in Tata Unisys. We were there in Pune City for about one year and then we moved to Bangalore city that's back to Karnataka state. And during that time, my husband used to work for Tata Elexi and I was another teacher in another school. And during this time, I want to talk about a particular issue that was going on. And my reason to immigrate to the US. Because when we lived in Bangalore city in Karnataka, we had something called a Cauvery water issue. So, the river Cauvery, it's a single river, again, shared by two different states, Karnataka state where we lived in and the next neighboring state, which is Tamil Nadu. So the water is shared by two different states. And you can imagine the problem there, because there was always dispute about who gets how much of the water, and the Tamil Nadu State at that point of time had blocked the water to our Karnataka state, and you won't believe it. But for eight straight days, we did not even have drinking water. And we had to purchase bottled water, just to drink. And at that same time, my friends, my classmates, visited us from the US. So, I had a couple of classmates come over in Bangalore. And when they came, they saw that there is no water to drink. And a couple of my classmates commented saying Pratt, "You know what, in the US, we have hot water, and cold water in one tap and look at you now you have no water to drink". I told my husband, let's pack our bags, let us go!! And we immigrated to the US. I think it was 1996. So, my husband came here in 1996, October, and I came here three months later in 1996 December.
SI: At that point what was involved in immigrating to the US, your experience?
PB: My husband first got a job here in a company called Transworld. And I followed shortly after three months, and we stayed here in East Brunswick, I would like to describe my first flight because I think it is interesting. So, in my first flight, I was extremely nervous. And the reason being that I have not traveled by air much at all. In fact, I was extremely nervous coming to the US, it's a different land, foreign land, different people, different customs. I'd heard about it vaguely. And I was extremely nervous. And my mom, she had stitched all these pockets on my dress. And because she thought that there will be pick pocketers everywhere. And I didn't know that security, was not at all a concern in the US. I didn't know them. She said keep your passport carefully. And you don't want it to be stolen. So, I had all these pockets over my dress, and I'm in the plane. My flight here was not good. And as soon as I landed here, I see that the trees have no leaves. There are no people walking around. And there are so many cars here. And it was freezing cold. And I have not experienced that amount of cold. And I remember telling my husband as soon as a I land- I said, this is a very sullen atmosphere. It looks so dark, and it's so cold. And my husband told me "hold on, you know what, the seasons do change here". And I didn't believe him because I'm like it's freezing cold and snow everywhere. And our initial life here was extremely difficult. We did not make enough money. We had no furniture in the house. We literally slept on a mattress kept on the floor. And we had the TV mounted on a cardboard box. We didn't have enough money to go to the restaurant either. So, we ate out of a 99% cent menu. And our initial life we struggled so much. As soon as we landed during or initial few months, we had a car accident, and our single used car we totaled it completely. So, my dream of coming to the US initially was not like I had dreamt off. When we totaled our car I realized that Oh my God, we didn't have a car. And my husband now had to walk in freezing cold to his work because we could not afford another car. So, we have no furniture our initial life started badly and the cherry on top was, I was expecting a baby. So, I was sick, but could not eat out because we had no money. But I think through struggle comes strength and when you struggle you appreciate all the luxuries that I have today. Real deep appreciation for them.
SI: Where did you first live?
PB: We first lived in East Brunswick NJ, in a small apartment. We rented there and we were there about five years and then later on moved to South Brunswick NJ, where we got our first townhome.
SI: You know, coming to a new country? You know, did you have any contacts and any kind of community here?
PB: We have a large South Asian community here. And even that time, I think 23 years back when I came, we had good friends. But when we immigrated here it was a culture shock to me, because the way the people behave, the way they talk, the way they dress, everything is different. Even as I mentioned, the seasonal changes from fall to winter, that was completely unknown. And when I landed here, I had not seen any huge malls like here. I had not seen the six lane highways, the turnpike, I've not seen that. But what I really appreciated is the discipline, the law and order, the way people followed the law and order and of course, the cleanliness. Luckily for us, we had very close friends who had immigrated along with us and we are still friends with. And so, it was like a support community. And over the years, we have changed our thought process. We have welcomed new ideas. We live in a lovely neighborhood and have lots of new friends too.
SI: How soon could you start working after coming here?
PB: My first job I got in 1999. So that was after, I had my daughter and I started working as a computer teacher in a school called ITM Institute. And in the year 2004, I joined Avtech Institute of Technology, which is a completely different experience.
SI: In your sheet of memories you have mentioned the 9/11 attack, do you want to talk about that?
PB: Yes, I think it has impacted all of us. It has impacted my husband the most. And I would like to describe 9/11 through his eyes, because he was there. So, at that point of time, he used to work for seven World Trade Center. And that was next to the Tower center. And he worked for Citigroup, and actually was late to work that day. So when he was late to work, he stopped by for coffee. This is how he described it. And he described it so vividly. And I felt it through his eyes. So, when he stopped by to get a cup of coffee, he saw that there was a plane hitting the tower center, I think it was 2nd plane, and he didn't know what is happening. And he continued walking towards his office, even though he sees the plane being hit. And I understand now that terror then was unknown in the US. And you don't expect terror attacks. And I think people didn't know how to behave and act in such a scenario. It was like shocking. So, he continues walking towards his office building, and sort of hears this noise, and this large dust cloud coming towards him. And he sees all these people like scattered away. He described this event to me, like he said, if you take an ant Hill, and if you, drop a stone on it. You know how the ants scatter. Literally, people are scattered running everywhere. So, he runs, too. He ran for his life. He sees this dust cloud, this is coming at a great speed and you're not able to breathe, right? So, he keeps running. He literally ran about 20 blocks. And he's looking to call me or call anyone. But the public booths are filled up. There is no contact. Here at my end what happens is I'm here at my daughter's daycare center. And I hear the news on the TV. I know because my husband works there. I know he was late to work. But I'm so worried that you know, something bad has happened to me. I didn't know how to react either. I came home, I was very upset and tried to reach him but was not able to get in touch with him, obviously. Meanwhile my husband walks all the way from downtown to Midtown. That is 34th Street. Because there are no buses, no train, everybody's like panicked and chaos everywhere. And he comes to Midtown. The reason being that Citigroup had set up a command center here to instruct them what to do. He had to backup his files and work. And later on, in the command center, they announced that for New Jersey residents, the only way to get out now is to go to Hoboken, and take a bus from there. So later on, in the day, he walked to 39th Street Pier, caught a ferry, briefly was able to get in touch with me just saying I'm okay, the phone call got cut and finally he was able to take the ferry to Hoboken, and from there take the bus. He reached home that day at eight o'clock in the night. And I was so relieved to see him I was so happy he is not hurt. And he's you know, really alive. That is what I was happy to see. And by then the World Trade Center had completely collapsed. I think it was an event that changed the whole of America.
SI: I'm curious other folks that are here, whether they're Muslim, or whatever, they face a lot of prejudice things and months afterwards, did you experience anything?
PB: So, I'm very fortunate that I have not faced any discrimination. And I know majority of our community does face it, because I have heard lots of stories. But I would like to tell you about one incident. So, when I first started teaching here in the US, I have an accent. And my students used to make fun of it. And they would often correct me and which is natural, which is okay. But you know, it's very difficult to teach when somebody's constantly correcting you. I tell them that my primary language is English. I've studied English. And I told them, I still speak English at home. And having an accent is construed as if you don't know English. So, I would make them understand this. But because they would keep correcting initially, it was kind of difficult to teach. So, I used to tell them a joke and tell them a story. I told them "the class before you tried correcting my accent. They tried correcting my accent for the last eight months. And I said Guess what? They're talking exactly like me now". So, when they heard that and you take it jokingly and make them understand then they would cooperate. And if they would not understand something, they would ask me to write it down. So that's the only thing that I had a slight issue with. But rest I'm very fortunate that I was not discriminated.
LS: How did you hold onto to your Hinduism and how you have passed this on to your children?
Yes. So, as I have mentioned earlier, we have a large South Asian community here. Especially in New Jersey, and since I've lived the majority of my married life, in New Jersey, it's very easy to follow our culture. So basically, we celebrate all the Hindu holidays here. I celebrate Diwali and Ganesh Chaturthi, we also celebrate all the American holidays too. We do Thanksgiving, and we celebrate Christmas too. And we do visit our local temple. It's called as Durga Mandir. My daughter Sonali has actually graduated in the oldest traditional dance form. It's about 2000 years old. And it's a traditional classical Indian dance form. So, I'm very fortunate that New Jersey has a large Asian community. So, I'm able to maintain my culture, I'm able to imbibe those values in my children too.
LS: Did your brother come along with you when you immigrated here?
PB: I came here, 23 years back, my brother came later. So, he's been in this country for about 18 years. So, once I told him stories about how I liked it here, he also decided to come over here.
SI: You are a teacher for quite a while. What I guess, stands out is the biggest challenges of the profession. You know, what do you like about it? Why do you keep doing it, that sort of thing?
PB: My job I'm very passionate about. And I would like to talk in detail about this. And I think it's a very different kind of a job and would like to explain more. When I was in the year 2004, I told you, I joined the company Avtech Institute of Technology. And basically, here I teach the workforce of New Jersey. So, I can say if you have ever lost your job, you probably have met me. We do provide computer training skills and job training skills. Majority of our workforce who have lost their job, take training from us. So, I'm a computer teacher. And I've designed this US copyrighted material. These are simple, easy to understand instruction booklets, and I provide them to my students through my company, which is Technical Instruction. But the workforce environment is very different. So here I meet people from all walks of life. Whether they are a project manager, a CIO or CEO, or an ex police officer, they have one thing in common, and that is they've all lost their jobs. And you know, when people lose their jobs, they are going through so much of difficulty. Because it's not easy. Some of these people have lost job, they had worked in 30 years. I had the other day a lady come and she said, Pratt, I don't know what to do with my life. I have been in the same company for last 40 years. And she said I wanted to retire, but I've lost my job and never had a resume done. I don't know what to do with my life. And, you know, when problems occur, they don't come in singularity, they come in a multitude of problems. So, majority of my students, besides losing their job, they're going through hundreds of other problems. Some are going through divorces, marital issues, children's issue, health problems. And for me this job I teach with passion. And more than teaching with passion, I'm able to empathize with my students, because I know they're going through so much that they're looking to transform their lives. I have students who are terminally ill, and some are even very sick. And I've had students facing a lot of psychological issues. And I understand they are looking to transform their life. So, I'm able to give them new hope, a new meaning and somehow help them and inspire them to find their potential. I don't treat this as a job, I treat this as a service. And I think majority of my students are very grateful for this. And you know, many of them, even after finding jobs after so many years, they stop by and they come and seek my blessings, before they actually bought on a new venture. And it's very embarrassing that they elevate me to that level, and come and seek my blessings. But I'm very grateful that I'm able to help others and impact their lives. And in fact, one of my students referred me here, and he said Pratt, you have impacted so many lives, you're doing great service, your history is worth recording. And so here I am today.
SI: Is this a Private Organization or work with the state?
PB: It's a private school, but we are affiliated with the Department of Labor. Through the different counties, students who get unemployed, they apply for grants, unemployment benefits, we call them, and we help them train and find jobs. Our School does train privately paid students too, but the majority of our students are through workforce.
SI: Can you share some of the challenges doing this type of work?
PB: I have taught in different environments. I've even taught in college in India. I think inspiring younger generations is different like college students especially when they are paying to go to college. But when they're going through workforce, the challenge is getting them motivated to find a job after 30 years of being at the same job. So, they're, you know, going through, I would say lot of negative emotions. You have to work on not just their job skills, you have to work on their mentality, encourage them positively, and inspire them. Students with different backgrounds are put together in a class and after having worked so many years are back in school. Many have not taken a test in the last 20 years and some just come to collect benefits and are not ready for a classroom environment. So, you really have to make them understand that education is critical to getting your future step. Many of my students are technologically challenged, and I tell them, I'd say you know, "our younger generation, they were born with a computer but you all have great experience, but you all need to get technologically evolved". And I have to convince them that technology is a part of living today. And you know, when you graduated out of high school, 30 years back, it's different now. So, it can be challenging to make them understand that the job they left and the new one they get into will be a different environment that they need to prepare for.
LS: Back in 2008 there was recession. What was your experience in your field during the recession?
PB: In the year 2004, we had only about like five students in the classroom. That means unemployment rate was low, you know, there were a lot of employed people. And during recession from five students it went to like 25 students in the classroom. And then literally, there were people waiting in a waiting list to get in the class, that much unemployment rate went up. Our school benefits from collecting unemployment benefits. And yet, at the same time, our school wants you to get placement, because you know, the more we place, the more word of mouth spreads. And that's good for the school. So, it was very challenging. So, during the recession, I saw so many unemployed workforce people in the classroom, and my greatest challenge was finding them the job, because the job market was not open. We had to literally take them from one division and go into another division. So, if I have a student from pharmacy, had to get them into sales and marketing, so that means redoing the resume itself of 20 years, and then giving them new skills and motivations. And inspiring them to believe they can work in a new field. We worked with a lot of different staffing agencies. And it was a challenging, I think, especially for the workforce of New Jersey.
SI: You have copyrighted material; can you talk about that?
PB: There are textbooks for every subject we teach. But, majority of my students have not been in school for 20 or 30 years and the student age group is mature/seniors. Understanding Textbooks is difficult, especially since majority have not been to a school in a long time. I have created the simple instruction booklet. It's a step by step guided instruction. Since computer technology is new to them, I break this down in instruction form, and at the start of the class give out the books. And many have commented saying, that they love it. The other day, we had a fire drill in our school. We didn't know it was a fire drill. So, we all run out of the building. And when I run out with my students, I see one of my student running back in. I'm like, what's wrong with you? Why are you going back in there? He said "I have forgotten your manual in the classroom". And I thought, oh my god, he would rather save the manual instead of his life. So, I think they value this material a lot.
SI: Can you tell us about your family?
PB: I have been married to my husband now for 25 years. And in fact, we are going to celebrate our 25th anniversary very soon. And I have two girls and my older daughter's name is Sonali. And my younger daughter's name is Sanjana. My older daughter, Sonali, she is studying in a medical program in New York. And my younger daughter, she's doing her 10th grade in the high school. And my older daughter, I want to talk about her because she has been a peer mentor in both her school as well as college now. She has published two books. And one book, which everyone finds useful is the "Girls guide to mastering her teenage years". And as a peer mentor, she experienced few things and she wanted to help her own peers better manage their teenage years. So, she's published this book, and she has one more Poetry collection. She was the president of the American Red Cross club and she is a staunch supporter of the Red Cross club. My younger daughter, she's a very creative personality, a very talented person. So, she can can dance, she can play volleyball, she's in Varsity. And she does something called as ventriloquism where she's able to transfer her voice into inanimate objects, like puppets. It's such a unique talent to have that many have encouraged her to continue into ventriloquism. Being multi-talented, she's created a website for all her talents. And I'm very blessed to have a wonderful family. And one particular thing I want to mention is my parents still visit me and my husband's parents also continue visiting us. So, every few years, either they come or I go back to meet them. And, you know, three generations are able to sit together. And all our parents and my children sit together for dinner time. And we are able to discuss and share stories of cultural heritage, and we are able to have a good time together. I think that's very wonderful that three generations are able to mingle together. But unfortunately, my mom passed away about three years back, as I mentioned, she was dealing with cancer. And she had a difficult journey and in 2016 she passed away. And I have to say, I'm fortunate that I was able to go back and take care of her. There is this joint family system in India, and we don't have any nursing care facilities, we are supposed to take care of our elders. And I had to actually quit my job. And I was fortunate that I could go back and take care of her.
LS: When did you start your volunteering work?
PB: I'm not sure exactly how many years back, but I would say about at least five years back. Hidden gems is a nonprofit organization where we are members right now. But these are a group of volunteers who are singers and musicians. And my husband is a drummer. So that's why he got invited to join. And we have been working with nonprofit organizations, and particularly Hidden gems, because their motto is to sing with passion for a cause. And they've donated about $200,000 over 10 years to various causes like Autism, Sandy, and American Red Cross.
SI: Are there other community/charity events you are involved in?
PB: My father, as I mentioned, he's an educationist and a philosopher. So, he has established an English-speaking school in his hometown. And this school basically has a lot of underprivileged kids. So, some of these children don't have one of their parents, or they're going through a lot of financial difficulty. My dad tells me that, you know, there are some kids who will drop out of school, if there's anything you can do, help them. So over about 14 years, I've sponsored various children from this school. I had also sponsored one of the children through Children International, which is an organization in the US. And I sponsored this child from West Bengal, India, for about 12 years. I had sponsored this girl's education and medicines. But, when I asked to get in touch with this girl, the organization denied saying that I am not allowed direct contact. So, what I learnt from this was that instead of going through some other organization, where I don't get to meet the child and where I don't get to see the child, because I really don't know how the money is used in India. What we decided (me and my father) is that we should sponsor children whom we can see, and whom we can directly impact. And we are able to provide educational support to some of the children from my father's school. And I'm particularly proud about one boy, his name is Deepak and his mom, she works as a maid in my dad's home, and she's a maid elsewhere, too. And she cannot read a single word of English or cannot write any other language for that matter. But her son today, with our support is able to graduate from the college, and he's finished his bachelor's in computer application, I'm very proud of him.
SI: Tell us how your city has changed?
PB: I think India as a country has seen a lot of transformation. So, Belgaum city then and Belgium city now is completely different. In fact, I would like to talk about this because I think India as a whole has changed now. Belgaum now has great infrastructure. So, the malls that I talked about that were nonexistent earlier are everywhere now. We see the interstate highways, the big lane highways now. And it has launched something called as Digital India. So even small towns and cities like Belgaum, are digitally connected. So, everything is available online, online services, online banking. And more than anything, I think the attitude of people in India and in my city has changed a lot. People have gone from cannot do attitude to a can-do attitude. It's so nice to see that people have become so open to different customs, different ideas, and more open to different rights, whether it's women's rights, LGBT rights, or children's right. So, everybody's become more aware of their rights, and the middleclass income in Belgaum and in India has grown now. People can afford more international goods easily. And they are able to spend more. And I think because of this progressive part, and the infrastructure change, I think it's moving positively. Just to give you an example, India has now grown from I think, the 12th largest economy from 20 years back to the seventh largest economy. And it has increased its international footprint. For example, if you look at the company, Tata Consultancy, it is here based in the Silicon Valley, and it has it's a $17 billion company, and it's spread across 46 countries with 350,000 employees. So, it's a great to see positive growth within India and my city.
SI: You mentioned that you travel a lot? Is this job related or personal?
PB: It is mostly personnel, for pleasure. We make sure as a family, we keep money aside, just for this travel experiences. My parents loved travel, they travelled everywhere. And me and my husband both love travelling too.
LS: You seem to be very proud about your daughters. Is there anything you learnt from them in your many conversations and how do you share your culture, experiences with them?
PB: As I mentioned earlier, three generations are able to sit together and discuss topics ranging from culture to political aspects. Through stories told by my parents, my daughters are able to learn. And they often question me about our beliefs and ideas. I tell them that every person and every country has something different to offer. There is always good and bad in any society and I tell them to keep the good and lose the bad. There's so much we can learn even from our younger generation, too. And I think there's so much to learn from us. My older daughter, she's very analytical, and she listens, and she gives her points. And as part of her undergrad, she travels. So, she is exposed to different cultures and she's done psychology as an undergrad major. So, she's able to give me insights into things that I cannot think of, which is out of the box. So, I really enjoy our conversations on the dining table. And both of my daughters have contributed so much. They've done numerous volunteer hours. And my younger daughter, she's a part of the Amnesty International Club, that's a human rights club. So, both of them are very strong supporters of women's rights, human rights and they are very aware of, you know, different problems, and they're able to give me a lot of good insights. And both of them have participated in various Women's Welfare associations and campaigns for autism.
SI: Is there anything else you'd like to talk about? Knowing skipped over or missed?
PB: I would really like to thank you for giving me this interview for Rutgers Oral History Archives, for giving me this great opportunity. I think I'm truly blessed with a wonderful family. And I'm very glad that I could imbibe good culture and good values from two great nations, both India and US, especially in my children. And I think my job makes a difference. I want to continue providing the service. I think I want to continue working at my job, even if I retire, because it's a very fulfilling job, and I'm able to do some service for this community. And I have no major events to report like world wars or any historical events. But I think that means I'm born in peaceful times. And I continue wishing peace. Thank you.
SI: Thank you very much. Thank you. Great Ending!