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Interview with: Girish Pandya
Interviewed by: Smita Mehta
Date: : September 22, 2011
SM: Hi! I am Smita Mehta, a resident of Houston for the last 30 years. I am doing this on behalf of the Foundation for Indians Studies, with The Houston Public Library, for the Indo-American Oral History Project.
Today I will be speaking with Mr. Girish Pandya, a mechanical engineer who has lived in Houston for the last 33 years.
Mr. Pandya, would you please tell us about your birthplace, family background, etcetera?
GP: Yes Smita, let me tell you that. I was born on August 1, 1931, in a place called Dahod, which is a railway town in Gujarat, India.
I am part of a big family, where I had nine siblings with me, and my number in the family, in the category comes as a second. And I am the eldest son in the family.
The other thing, that my father though, he was kind of the head of -- as usual the head, and he gave a lot of encouragement to all the siblings and whatever values he needed to give to the children and the cultural aspects, he gave it to the children. And we were so lucky that we had that kind of a training and cultural background in our life.
And again, I had the occasion when I was growing up, I had the occasion of being in Sevagram Ashram for about two occasions in a row, in the year 1941 and 1942. And I was fortunate to become the lakdi, they call it, or the support, the human support of Gandhi.
And we used to take turn with Abha Gandhi and Kanu Gandhi and we used to go there right in the morning with him, and again in Sevagram Ashram, the lady, Kasturba, she was in charge of the kitchen over there. So we will always see her in the kitchen busy. And again, I had the chance of studying under Professor Bhansali, with so many other children though, than it was before. And I am so glad to have that experience.
SM: Can you tell us about your education, the other activities, and how you came to U.S.?
GP: Yes. Okay Smita, I just wanted to let you know about my dad also, that my dad, he came to Dahod, where we were all brought up though.
SM: Your birthplace.
GP: Yes. In 1929, after graduating from the College of Agriculture in Pune, and he was the General Manager there. And later on he leased a farm and on that farm though he spent his life all the way up to 1994, until he died.
SM: And your dad’s name was?
GP: My dad’s name was Shantilial B. Pandya. And he was kind of very much connected with Gandhiji. So he wrote letters to Mahatma Gandhi and he had correspondence in 1935, 1937 with him and all those letters that Shantilial wrote to Gandhi and his answers, they are available in the Gandhi Memorial Library, on the website in Delhi.
SM: In Delhi, in New Delhi, the Gandhi Memorial Library.
GP: It is on the website. And he was connected with Kamala Nehru, Chattopadhyay, and Ram Manohar Lohia, and those leaders in that time, and he was kind of an active worker in that direction also though.
Then, again, I went to the College in Anand, India. And in Anand I was connected to the curriculum and then we had a lot of activities, like NCC, so I participated in that one.
SM: What is NCC?
GP: It’s National Cadet Corps. And I graduated from there in 1952. I came back to Dahod though. And when I was doing that thing, then I heard about one of the program which was launched by Rockefeller Foundation in cooperation with the Government of India. And it was called the IFYE Program.
SM: What was IFYE?
GP: It was the International Farm Youth Exchange Program.
GP: So I learned about that and I thought that perhaps I should also apply for that. And when -- after I graduated from the college what I had done though that I had tried to get an admission at the LSU in USA for higher studies in -- for the Master’s Degree.
SM: LSU is Louisiana State University.
GP: Louisiana State University, for the Master’s Degree and the PHD program. But when I heard about this IFYE program I thought that I am going to postpone my education at LSU, but would go for IFYE program.
SM: To pursue this, yes.
GP: So then I applied for it, and then I got interviewed also in Poona, and then I was lucky to be selected as a delegate from the Gujarat province of the Bombay State then. So then, I had to come down here in USA at the age of 22 and --
SM: Which year was that?
GP: That was 1953.
GP: 1953. So I came down here in ’53, we flew to New York, and then from Genoa -- no, we flew to New York, but before that though we had a stopover in Genoa. From Genoa, let me tell you, we took a boat though, and from Genoa to New York we took a boat and we arrived in New York, and before we arrived in the port we saw the big Statue of Liberty.
SM: Oh, that must have been a beautiful sight.
GP: There was really an excitement, because the Nation of Liberty, the Statue that we are seeing, and we couldn’t believe it though.
SM: In the New York Harbor, yes.
GP: That’s right. And then what happened that we just went in the city and then we saw a lot of stores with black and white TVs and the cafeteria automat over there. And again, we saw the long bridges and the tunnels below the Hudson River, where all the cars and the trains, they went streaming quickly and really fast, and it was really wonderful.
SM: It must have been an amazing sight.
GP: It was really wonderful.
GP: And they took us out to Washington D.C., so excuse me. So they took us out to Washington D.C. and there we saw the President of the United Nations General Assembly, Mrs. Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, who was from India. Her office was located on the 38th floor of the United Nations building, I am sorry, that was in New York though.
So she gave us the visit over there, and it was really wonderful to see her over there on the top of the United Nations building.
Then we came to Washington and in Washington we had the dinner with the then Ambassador of India, Gaganvihari Mehta. And later on the Rockefeller Foundation, they organized our trip to see TVA Valley Program, Tennessee Valley Authority Programs, where they had contained the flows by making the dams in the River Tennessee. They put us there in Knoxville, Tennessee.
And one thing, I was surprised that at that time, in ‘53 it was obvious, but we had to come face to face though at the campus in Knoxville though, we saw the bathrooms where it said White and then the other bathroom said color, and I did not have an idea, but on the campus there were no students and it was vacation, so it was all right.
SM: But they had the bathrooms like that at that time.
GP: But it was wonderful to see the dam and all the natural beauty of Tennessee. Then we were stationed under that program in the States of Ohio and Kansas, where we stayed with the families.
SM: Host families.
GP: Host families, above five of them, and they were meticulously picked up by the U.S. Government and the Rockefeller Foundation, who were really active in the community.
Now, those host families, they took us out in the public and made us give the presentation to the crowd, and that included some of the high schools, rotary clubs, farm bureaus, then the camps of the college clubs in different parts over there during that time.
SM: And the surrounding areas.
GP: And that was really a wonderful experience, and whatever goodwill and brotherhood was generated between India and America during our visits, directly with the people, it was really unremarkable.
SM: It must have been a wonderful experience.
GP: It was extremely memorable though. And then, we returned after this trip and all that thing, there was an evaluation, and then I had an option to stay over there though to attend LSU for my education, but it was my moral duty to come back over here and to give the message to the Indian public, my own Indian public, that what I learned and how the people in the United States, how good they were and what the goodwill message they had given to me, I wanted to return that message to India. So that is why I came back to India.
SM: You came back to India. When was that, that you had returned?
GP: We came before one year. So that program was for one year. So we came before the end of ‘54.
SM: Before the end of ‘54. Very interesting, Mr. Pandya! What did you do in 1954-1961 before your permanent return back to USA?
GP: Well, later on, as I said, it was my duty to go around in the people and convey the message, goodwill message that I had received from USA and convey it to my own people there. So that’s why I went in different places like the high schools and the other organizations, like rotary clubs there, and other institutions and gave the presentation that how was my experience.
SM: About your experiences in America.
GP: Right. And it was just like a goodwill ambassador to India from America. And during this time I had got the occasion to be on a radio program also, that was called the All India Radio, Baroda-Ahmedabad Station, and they offered me a spot in a radio talk, where I would go regularly and tell about America to all the Indian listeners. So it was also a great opportunity to spread information about America.
SM: Absolutely! Yes.
GP: Then again, what I did though that, as I was interested in the humanity and to help the other people, so that way I wanted to help the people around me and all the people in the township. So that’s why I started taking part in some of the organization, and they made me the President of the Taluka Krishak Samaj, which is a kind of a farmers association, and under which the activity, I took a trip to visit the development of India, and that was called the entourage to feed the growth or the province of India. It was called Bharat Darshan Yata.
SM: And where did you go?
GP: And in that one, we went to Bhakra Nangal dam, we went to Dehradun, Haridwar, and Delhi. And in Delhi, Government of India was so kind enough to give all these farmers, 500 farmers, a free trip around the metropolitan Delhi. So first time in their life these poor farmers, who were ignorant about all the metropolitan facilities --
SM: They were able to see the city.
GP: And they still remember it until now that they had a chance to sit in that.
SM: Until this day.
GP: Now, besides that, I took part in the other associations also over there, like the Rotary Club of Dahod, where in the beginning I was the Secretary and then they elected me as the President of the Rotary Club also. And in that one, of course besides the social activity, we did the activity for the rural masses also of India, and that is how we did the community service.
I had that idea of adopting a village nearby. So we adopted a village named Kharedi nearby, and that is where we offer our services, like the legal service, the health services, the educational services in the town. We would go often over there and give our service, and in that way we did the kind of a welfare job.
SM: It was close to Dahod in Gujarat?
GP: That’s right, it was close to Dahod though. And under that association though I organized some of the camps, health camps for the men and the women to cut down the population problem and population growth, the birth control, and for that we mustered the help of the surgeons, who voluntarily came over there and they ran one time the Tubectomy Camp for the ladies. About 50 ladies participated in that one.
And the next time we called the other gynecological surgeons also at the time though, and then the next time we called the surgeons to help -- to call the men and they did the vasectomy on the men, and the participants, there were about 82-85.
SM: So you had camps like that?
GP: We had camps, one-day camps where we treated these people. So that was the kind of work I did after going over there though.
SM: I understand you were in your mid-20s in 1954-1961 in India. How was your personal life?
GP: Well, I was unmarried until ‘54, and then during that time though, I just decided that I am going to get married, and that was also my grandfather, he wanted me to get married. So then I got married in ‘55 to Tanman Pandya, and she was going in the college. So she finished her college and we had two children in 1958. That was the birth of my daughter, Smitha, and in 1959, my younger son, Amit, he was born though.
And meanwhile, from ’54-‘61, that was a span of seven years, so I helped my dad in farming.
SM: In Dahod?
GP: In Dahod, and did lot of development, like planting the orchard over there and efficiently managing his farm in Dahod.
SM: Which place was this?
GP: It was called Pandya Farm.
SM: Pandya Farm.
GP: Yes, that is where I planted the orchard. I just did the initial part of the production of the hybrid seed though, and casually, my father he took it over the whole thing and he also put up the same cause of hybrid production, as well as serving the people, and he went to Delhi also to lead one of the association, which was called Krishak Samaj though. And Government of India they awarded on him the title of Padma Shri in 1968 though, later on, and V.V. Giri, the President at that time, he presented that award to him.
SM: And this award was for?
GP: For helping in the green revolution of India. So that way, I in those years, earlier years, I also started the hybrid production, and then they carried on and continued and progressed in the production of hybrid seed. But that way our income also had a big impact, positive impact on the total number -- volume though, and that was really good.
SM: So when did you come to the USA for the second time, and explain to me, Mr. Pandya, what kind of difficulties you encountered as a non-White?
GP: Excuse me, Smita. In ’61 though, as I was doing farming over there and working at the Rotary Club, giving my voluntary service, I was still thinking that I need to come back to USA to take up the education for the Master’s Degree and the postgraduate work, so that’s why I decided to come down to USA.
So in 61, I flew to New York and from there I took the Greyhound bus from New York all the way to College Station, and I came down in ‘61 at College Station and studied --
SM: This was College Station, Texas?
GP: Texas A&M University.
SM: In Texas A&M.
GP: A&M University. And my wife and two children couldn’t come with me because I wanted to economize and cut down the cost though, so that is why they did not join me, but they joined me in the year 1963, March. So I was without them for year-and-a-half.
Now, I got the degree of BS in Engineering, Agricultural Engineering from Texas A&M, and I accepted a job later on in Topeka, Kansas.
SM: Topeka, Kansas?
GP: Topeka, Kansas, with a subsidiary of the Allis-Chalmers Company, where I was a project engineer in charge of the manufacture of backhoe and loader in construction equipment though. So I stayed over there, and I was really happy, but then I still didn’t have the Master’s Degree, so that is why I was looking when there could be an opportunity, so I just took that opportunity and, again, started out for Pennsylvania State University. And I moved to Pennsylvania University and became an instructor and a student at the Penn State University.
SM: Penn State University in State College.
GP: State College, Pennsylvania, right. And over there I got my Master’s in engineering, and that was in engineering mechanics though.
SM: Could you tell me Mr. Pandya how you raised your children, and did you encounter any kind of difficulty, and this could be from the years 1963-2011?
GP: Yes, I think in the beginning, in the early 60s, it was a kind of a difficult thing. In America also, they did not see lot of foreigners, especially in Texas A&M, over there. So when my children came down there, it was all new for them and they were really nervous to go out and play with the new surroundings.
And of course the other children, they were there in big number, so they were really nervous. But then they became familiar with them and made friends, and that way it came out really good.
Later on, when the children were growing, again, I came in the earlier years, so that’s why there were not so many people from India, so there were not so many Indian children of their age. So it was very difficult for them to coordinate and make the friendship with some of the Indian children and talk about the Indian history and things like that. Again, there were no cultural associations, no classes at that time.
SM: At that time.
GP: Right. But it was no problem and we did not run into any major problem. For the matter of -- especially for the real reason, so that they can learn the Indian culture I sent them for one year, in 1970, to India, both of my children to India. And they stayed over there for one year, and it was a really good experience for them and it added a lot of cultural values for them.
SM: Right. How many children in total did you have, Mr. Pandya?
GP: I have three children. First, as I said, Smita, born in ’58. And then after she came down here, she went to U of H, got the degree BBA at U of H, and then married later on in 1980 to a neurologist from India, Shekhar Mehta, and they have got two children. The first one is Ishani and the son is Sumit.
The same way, my son Amit, he came down here, he also graduated at U of H and then got his MBA degree from Southwestern Medical College in Dallas, and he married a friend from U of H named Alma, and he married her in ’82, and they had children also, two children. They have two children. The first one is Anil and the next one is Alberto.
Now, my youngest son, whose name is Rajiv, he went to school and at U of H.
SM: And he was born?
GP: Yes, he was born in Bryan, Texas, in 1964, and so he grew up and he went to U of H and got his degree, BSEE, and then MBA also from U of H. And he married a Indian girl from Ohio named Hina, and she got her ME from Ohio State University and they have got two daughters; Shivani and Dhami.
SM: Oh, what a nice family.
GP: Thank you.
SM: Mr. Pandya, so tell me a little bit about your career and social life, how was that?
GP: Well, if you recall, the Immigration Act was passed in 1965, and I was working at that time for Allis-Chalmers in Topeka, Kansas, so they applied for my whole family for the visa, permanent visa, and as soon as this law came into being in 1966, I got my green card. I did not have then my citizenship until 1986, because I had a little more affinity towards India though. But my chemical company, Dow Chemical Company, suggested to me that the citizenship will definitely help in the career. So I had my career that way.
I joined -- after my degree from Penn state, I went to Philadelphia and then I went to Cleveland. And in Cleveland, I started Dow Chemical Company -- I joined Dow Chemical Company in 1972 and continued all the way up to ‘92.
SM: This was in Cleveland?
GP: I started out in Cleveland, Ohio.
SM: Cleveland, Ohio.
GP: Right. While doing the job, I was also active in the local associations of the India in Houston. So when I came down here in 1978, from Cleveland to Houston, then I joined the India Culture Center, and I just took the job as a Treasurer, and then from that I was elected as the Vice President, and the next year I was elected as the President of the India Culture Center.
In that one, we had to do lot of programs and raise the fund basically to help the facility for the Indians, which was the India Center on Cypress Street, because I was a Treasurer and did a lot of fundraising, and we bought the land and the house there on Cypress Street.
During that time, I had the occasion to host our Indian Ambassadors like Narayanan, K Narayanan, who became the President of India also later on, and had the occasion to meet Zail Singh also. So that was a great opportunity, I think.
In that house though, we had added some of the more quarters, some of more apartments in India House, where we can have the quarters for the medical patients, who had really the heart patients. So in that one, we had the heart patients living free, so that was one of the biggest --
SM: In the ICC?
GP: In the ICC. And I remember that before that we never had the salutation to the Indian flag, which is called the Dhwaj Vandan.
So then, I, with the help of my committee members, we organized a Dhwaj Vandan at the ICC House in the year 1982, and that was a big thing, and now we continuously every year have that.
SM: You continue that tradition every year?
GP: Dhwaj Vandan, right. So basically that is what it was though.
SM: Yes, Mr. Pandya, I understand you are very active in the Gujarati community also. Can you say something about that?
GP: Yes. I being a Gujarati and working for the Indians, that was a good thing, but the people from Gujarat, just like as well as the other provinces, they had a different notion also. And what I noticed -- excuse me if I just take a sip of water.
GP: They had a notion that India is separate and provinces, they are also separate, that kind of a thing, and there was a little question about the unity in the interaction. So that is why I thought that from the ICC, I am going to go to the Gujarati community and have more kind of an unity and remove that provincialism which existed in all the states over there.
So that is why I contested the election as the president, and got majority votes in 1984, and I became the President of the Gujarati Samaj.
SM: The Gujarati Samaj?
GP: Right. And during that time, we had a working committee of 16, and we all decided that we are going to do something which is going to be a kind of a milestone for the Gujarati Samaj.
So the first thing we decided that we will call some of the people who can unite the people though. That was the main thing.
So we invited one of the Saint from Gujarat named Morari Bapu. So we had Morari Bapu come in and that was the first time he stepped on the soil of United States and the City of Houston.
SM: Oh, the first time?
GP: First time in Houston. And his first katha, which was a 9-day Ram Katha, it was organized in Houston.
SM: In Houston. Which year was this, Mr. Pandya?
GP: This was 1984.
GP: Yes. And the tempo of the people, it was so great that they became all united, and they donated also lots of money. So we collected the money and that money later on came to a lot of help as the seed money when we went ahead and bought a Mahatma Gandhi Community Center in 1987.
GP: We bought the Community Center. And besides that though, the way I was running my committee was in a very democratic business way. We had the method of running an organization and the meeting in a professional way, like the project management.
So each committee member will be assigned a project or a task and he will be whole and sole, he will be responsible for the success or the failure of that project. So that way everybody paid a lot of attention, and that way all our projects, all throughout the 12 years, they were very, very successful. And that system is still continuing until 2011.
SM: Oh, that’s very nice!
GP: Beside that, our organization being Gujarati Samaj, being so infant, our constitution also needed lot of improvements, because of the need of the day, as well as the growth of the membership, so that is why we had to revise our constitution blatantly; we had to revise it thoroughly.
So that is why I have had to have the General Body Meetings nine times, and invited people, have the discussion, run the meeting for three, four hours every time, and that way we revised the constitution in a very manageable and efficient way.
And that is -- more or less that’s the same constitution we are using it, with little more additions and subtractions, which is one of the achievements.
This way, I thought that we brought a lot of unity amongst Indians. And about the masses over here though, I have been very active and work also with our associations, the Employee Associations in Cleveland as well as here. And I am kind of very active in the Homeowners Association also, and I happen to be on the Board of Trustees of the Sugar Lakes Homeowners Association for two years, and that is where I gave my service.
So basically, this is what it is and this is my kind of a life story.
SM: Thank you, Mr. Pandya.