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Interview with: Mohinder Paul Mehta
Interviewed by: Jawahar Malhotra
Date: September 27, 2011
JM: HI! I'm Jawahar Malhotra. The Foundation for India Studies, in partnership with the Houston Public Library, is sponsoring this first of a kind Oral History Project for Indian Americans. Today we will be speaking with Dr. Paul Mehta, the Dean Emeritus for the College of Education from Prairie View A&M University, which is part of the Texas A&M University System. Dr. Paul Mehta, please give us a little background of yourself?
PM: My full name is Mohinder Paul Mehta. I moved from India to Canada in 1964. My colleagues and friends had difficulty pronouncing my first name, so I switched to Paul Mehta. I am originally from Lahore district in Punjab, in Pakistan.
JM: But it was not Pakistan at that time.
PM: At that time it was undivided India. I was nine-years-old when my family moved from India to just about 12 miles away across the Sutlej River, to Ferozepur City, where my family settled.
JM: This is after the partition?
PM: After the partition. I went to high school and college in Ferozepur City. I went to graduate school in Jalandhar, Punjab, where actually I met my future wife as a fellow graduate student. Returned to Ferozepur City in 1961 to teach in the same college I graduated from, which is RSD College, Ferozepur City.
JM: How unique!
PM: And I got married in 1963 to Sudesh Sharma, who is Sudesh Mehta now. And she was also a professor of English like me, but she was in Dev Samaj College for. Women.
JM: So your native language is?
PM: My native language is Punjabi.
JM: And you are religion-wise?
PM: I was born a Hindu, however, my family has a mixture of Hindus and Sikhs even to the present day.
JM: But that’s very common in India.
PM: Even to the present day, but it was very common probably 50 years ago or 60 years ago, but in my family the tradition continued. My first cousin was a turbaned, bearded Sikh. As we speak, my younger brother is married to a Sikh girl, or was married, late younger brother. I have a niece who is married to a Sikh gentleman. So our tradition continues, and I'm as comfortable in a Hindu temple as I am in a gurdwara.
JM: I see. So this is very common still in India.
JM: The Indian marriage between these two communities.
PM: In my family it’s very common. We don’t have any distinction actually, we follow teachings of both Hinduism and Sikhism.
JM: So after you got married, you were saying in 1964?
PM: I was married in ’63. I moved to Canada in 1964.
JM: I see. And why did you come to Canada?
PM: That's an interesting story. I had absolutely no motivation; I was happy. I was a professor, my wife was a professor, and the college had just opened after the summer vacation in July, and I got a cable from a Canadian school system offering me a teaching position.
JM: Which city?
PM: It was a small town, Leask in Saskatchewan, Canada, and in the Blaine Lake Independent School District. And they hired -- they offered me a job to teach English in the high school in Canada. And that was because of a friend of mine, who used to teach in that school district, and then they asked him if he knew somebody they could hire. So that's how I got the job and I came to Canada just for adventure. And my college facilitated this very much by giving me a leave of absence for one year. So I thought, I have got nothing to lose, I can go to Canada for a year, teach there. If I don't like it, I will come back.
JM: So you came as a professor, you left your professorship job to teach school in a high school. How did you find that experience?
PM: It was excellent! I loved it actually. I loved it actually. My wife, when she joined me in ‘65, she also joined the faculty. I taught the senior high school grades, she taught the junior high school grades. So we both taught at the same building actually. And we loved that small town. We loved the people. We were one of the two minority families, the non-White families. There was a Chinese family who owned the local electronic store and the local Chinese restaurant, and us. Other than that there was no non-White person in that town.
JM: How about that!
PM: They welcomed us with open hearts, with warmth, with affection, with kindness, I can never forget.
JM: So did you stay on after the first year?
PM: We stayed there for four years. All of my four years in Canada I was at the same job. In fact, the last two years they made me Assistant Principal.
JM: How about that! So you -- your leave of absence ran out in India then?
PM: Yes, it ran out. In fact, I informed them long before it ran out that I won't be returning. And my wife also resigned her position a year later, because we were expecting our first child by that year. So I -- she stayed behind to have the baby and then joined me about six months later. I didn't see my daughter till she was six months old.
JM: I see. So how small was the school, how many students were there?
PM: Very small. I think from grade one -- or kindergarten to Grade 12, we had fewer than 500 students.
JM: And the town itself, how many people?
PM: Town itself was probably 1,500, but some students were bussed from the farms in the area.
JM: So you left a town Ferozepur, how many people were there at Ferozepur at that time?
PM: Ferozepur City and Ferozepur Cantonment were really very famous before partition of India. After partition of India the Army moved the Ordnance Depot and many of the facilities. It still remained a railways headquarters for the whole division. I would say probably between both cantonment and the city, maybe 200,000.
JM: So you left a fairly large town and you came to a small town in Saskatchewan, which is also climate wise very different.
PM: It was a very difficult transition of moving from a large city to a tiny little town, and moving from a tropical climate to subzero temperatures in the winter, where the days were so long in winter that you went to work in dark and you came back in dark.
JM: But you adjusted?
PM: Oh, I loved it. I loved it. I loved the people there. I loved the students. Loved the parents. I became involved in the Lions Club there right away, and other social, cultural activities of the town. We were very, very happy there.
JM: So they welcomed you with open hearts?
PM: They welcomed us.
JM: So did you stay alone in Canada after you left?
PM: No, I yearned to return to university teaching, college teaching. Even though I liked teaching in high school, I wanted to return to college teaching. And I started doing some doctoral work at the University of Montana, in Missoula, Montana, the Rocky Mountains, in the summer of ‘66, ’67. They required a two years residency on campus for my doctoral program. So we resigned our teaching positions in Canada, moved to Missoula, Montana in 1968, where I finished my doctoral degree in English Education in 1970.
JM: But you started out by going one summer to teach?
PM: Two summers and then two full years, including two summers and those two years, so I did more than three years of total residency.
JM: I see. So that's when you came to the U.S.?
PM: Yeah, and I never went back to Canada.
JM: So you were not -- you never became a Canadian immigrant?
PM: No, I was a Canadian immigrant on day one.
JM: Oh, at that time?
PM: I mean, I landed in Canada.
JM: This is the time when Canada gave you Landed Immigration?
PM: Landed immigration, and I would have become citizen had I stayed there. However, opportunity came for a teaching position at a university in United States and I took it.
JM: Where was that?
PM: Minot, North Dakota, another cold place.
JM: You always stayed in cold places for the first two years.
PM: I loved it. No, many years; four years in Canada, two years in Montana, 16 years in North Dakota.
JM: Which town in North Dakota?
JM: Where is that?
PM: Minot Air Force Base is huge Air Force Base. It's North Central part of North Dakota.
JM: I see. I see.
PM: Minot State University there, where I started as an Assistant Professor, became Associate Professor, Full Professor, Division Chair, and the Founding Dean of the College of Education and Human Services.
JM: Oh, that’s commendable.
PM: I was the first Dean of the College of Education at the University, before that they didn’t have schools or colleges.
JM: So apart from being an Air Force town, Minot is also a college town?
PM: It's a college town. It's also a very service, medical services, shopping areas for whole Northwestern North Dakota, and even Southern Saskatchewan and Southern Manitoba in Canada.
JM: I see. So you were very happy with your development in Minot.
PM: Absolutely! I was not only very happy professionally, as I mentioned earlier. In my division for a long time I was the only non-White person. So the Chairmanship opened up, I became the Chairman.
JM: So would it be fair to say that you did not find integration into the society very hard?
PM: Not at all, not at all. When I landed in Canada I said, if I want to adopt a country, I want to be a part of it. I want to be a part of it. I adopted the country professionally, socially, culturally, and politically, and when I became a citizen in 1975, the first gift that came from was from the Democratic Party; they made me Secretary of the District.
JM: How about that! That’s great! So you got involved --
PM: That was my gift for becoming a citizen and a year later I became the Chair, Chairman of the Fifth District Democratic Party in North Dakota; Minot, North Dakota.
JM: So you were involved then in political parties there?
PM: Yes, I was the Co-Chair of the State Democratic Convention in 1984. I was a National Delegate at the Democratic Convention in 1980, one of the only two Indians who were delegates at that time; the other one, also a professor, Dr. Kanak Dutta from New Jersey. Now, of course you see 40, 50, we see two Governors. I mean, things have changed so wonderfully well for the Indian community.
JM: Well, tell me a little bit about your family. Did your wife feel as easily accepted?
PM: Absolutely! When I was pursuing my doctorate degree at the University of Montana, she got a Master of Education with a major in Librarianship, and in Minot, North Dakota, she was a Reference Librarian -- no, Adult Programming Librarian of the City Library until we came to Houston, and she did a Oral History Project for that city.
JM: How about that!
PM: Through a grant from The Humanities Council of the State.
JM: So your first child was born in India, then you came to Canada, and then your second child was born?
PM: In Minot.
JM: In Minot, in the U.S.?
PM: Yeah. I have a daughter who is now 46, would be 47 in a couple of months, Samita Mehta, and she is a Corporate Attorney, works for ConocoPhillips. She is currently in Jakarta, Indonesia on an assignment by the company. And her husband, Utpal Mehta, is also an attorney, and we have a grandson from them, who is a high school -- would be a high school junior in a couple of months, international high school in Jakarta. My son is 40 years old.
JM: Your son’s name is?
PM: Neal Mehta. Neal K Mehta, and he is married to Monique Rodriguez, who is Monique Rodriguez Mehta, and he is a teacher and he is a musician, lives in Austin, Texas. And my daughter-in-law is a Student Development Officer. She works for the University of Texas in Austin.
JM: What did you say --
PM: I have a granddaughter --
JM: Oh, I am sorry, go ahead.
PM: -- and she would be three in a couple of months and her name is Nicola Monique Mehta.
JM: Wonderful! Your son you mentioned is a musician; what instrument does he play?
PM: He is a singer.
JM: I see. What kind of music?
PM: Popular music.
JM: He sings in English?
PM: Oh yes! He doesn’t speak much Hindi or Punjabi.
JM: Tell me a little bit about your wife. Your wife’s name is?
PM: Sudesh Sharma Mehta, and as I mentioned earlier we met in Jalandhar when we were pursuing Master of Arts degrees in English, and we got married in 1963. She was an English Professor in India, and high school teacher in Canada, then a librarian in Minot, North Dakota, then a special education teacher in Klein Forest High School, Houston.
JM: Here in Houston?
PM: Which she had to retire from because of health.
JM: I see. But during this whole time that she was working, was she -- she was not a homemaker then, your children were born and she was also --
PM: She did not work for many years in Minot. She started working part-time after Neal started first grade, and then she went full-time when he was a little older. So when my kids were little in Minot at least, she did not work for, I would say, good six, seven years to stay home with the children, and then when they went to school, she went to work again.
JM: Your children you described what they do and you mentioned that language, their Hindi or Punjabi is not --
PM: Both of them understand quite a bit our conversations in Hindi or Punjabi; my daughter more than my son. But you ask them a question in Punjabi or Hindi, they answer you back in English.
JM: Yes. Isn’t that very typical of a lot of Indian families?
PM: I believe so, but I think if we had been living in Houston when they were born, I am sure they would have spoken Hindi and Punjabi more fluently because of the facilities available here; the temples and gurdwaras, they teach Hindi, they teach Punjabi. A lot of Indian kids who speak Hindi and Punjabi and they can interact with them.
JM: So talk to us a little bit about your work in the community here. First of all, when did you come down to Houston?
PM: I came to Houston August 1, 1986.
JM: For which purpose?
PM: See, I was a Dean of Education at Minot State University from ’84-’86, as I mentioned earlier I was a Founding Dean of the college, but my wife’s kidneys were failing fast and the doctors advised that she needed to go to a medical center where she would be going through dialysis and possibly a kidney transplant. Minot did not even have a nephrologist. So even though we loved the town, the community, the jobs, we started looking for a place where she would get better medical attention, and fortunately I got an offer for Deanship from Prairie View A&M University and I ended up being the Dean for 21 years, the longest serving Dean in the history of the university.
JM: That’s commendable. That’s commendable. So that’s what brought you here, both those issues.
PM: Issues, yeah. And my community involvement is kind of interesting. I moved here in August ‘86, on January ’87, you may remember now, I was the Secretary of the India Culture Center.
JM: Yes, I do remember that.
PM: Six months after arriving in Houston I was a Secretary of the umbrella organization of all Indian organization, and a year later, January 1, ’88, I became the President of India Culture Center. And I have been a trustee of the India Culture Center twice, two terms.
JM: Yes. Now, you have been quite involved in other community projects also.
PM: Yes. I mean, I am one of the Founders of the Punjabi Culture Club, which is a very active social and cultural organization. I was the Chairman of the India House Council when we were planning the construction, during the construction phase I was the India House Council Chairman, and not only the Council Chairman, I was also on the Board of Directors as ex-officio member and Secretary of India House for a two-year term.
JM: So India House, the India Culture Center, the Punjabi Culture Club, these figured very highly in your life and your outside activities from your professional development. Did you find that in pursuing these activities, did you find any impediments to growth, your own personal growth or for the growth of your organizations?
PM: I think I feel very enriched culturally, socially, in many other respects. This involvement was motivated by my desire to give back to the community. My own Indian community and the American community, mainstream community at large, because the American community has been so good to me in my pursuits as a professional and as a citizen. I mean, it sounds like a cliché that America is the best country in the world, but it's not a cliché, I think that’s a fact, and people don’t realize this, how fortunate they are to live in this country.
JM: Yes. You also mentioned you were involved in the Democratic Party in North Dakota, have you maintained that involvement here?
PM: No, I could not because of my job demands and my wife’s health. I wish I could have been as involved here, but I did get involved initially in the Political Action Committee, if you remember, and I was quite active in the activities of the Political Action Committee.
JM: The Indo American Political Action Group.
PM: The Indo-American Political Action Group. But then, again, I have not done much for several years because of my wife’s health and the last couple of years my own health.
JM: Your wife’s health has improved?
PM: Yeah, she is stable. She is pretty stable.
JM: What about the -- we talked about the culture and the heritage that you brought back from India, have you been able to pass that along to, not only your own children, but also to your non-Indian friends?
PM: Certainly! Certainly! My daughter, my son-in-law, my grandson, are I think bicultural, I would say very much bicultural.
JM: They feel American and Indian?
PM: Absolutely! And I am specially proud of the fact -- about my grandson, who is 16. My son is definitely bicultural, but my daughter-in-law who is an American, actually who is a multi -- biracial herself.
JM: How is that?
PM: Her dad is from Colombia, he is an oncologist in San Antonio, and her mother is a French-Canadian.
JM: Oh, unique!
PM: So my daughter-in-law is half Colombian and half French-Canadian, and my baby granddaughter is tri-racial.
JM: Tri-racial, truly a melting pot. Did you think that this was what you were going to -- this is how your life would have turned out after you came here to the U.S.?
PM: You cannot predict precisely what would happen to you down the road, 10 years, 20 years, 30 years.
JM: But you didn’t intend to stay in Canada, you wanted to go back after one year, that was your original plan?
PM: My original plan was to go back in one year. Then my plan was to get a Ph.D. and go back.
JM: I see.
PM: But both Canadian society and the American society prevailed and I stayed.
JM: I see. So you have been very happy with the way things turned out.
PM: Absolutely! In fact, somebody asked me the other day about my health and this kind of thing. And I said, listen, I have no regrets in life. If I have to do it all over again, I would probably follow the same path.
JM: I see. Well, now that you are at this stage in your life, do you have any other plans on how to pass along your knowledge, not only your knowledge but also your culture to the people here?
PM: When I retired in 2007, one of my objectives was to do exactly that. Speaking to certain groups, not just the Indian groups, I am talking about the non-Indian groups, which I have done by the way, extensively throughout my life. And so that was not going to be something new, it was just going to be at a more intensified level. And then do some writing, which my administrative duties kind of prohibited me to some extent as compared to a faculty member. And I thought I am a free man now, I can write, I can speak, I can -- but then came some health issues.
JM: Yes, I understand.
PM: And if I recover from my health problems, I think I will go back to those, meeting those objectives.
JM: Well, we certainly wish you the best of luck. This has been a wonderful opportunity to pass on your insights and your life history onto other people for the future.
PM: No, I consider myself very fortunate that I live -- I have been enriched by two cultures; one, one of the ancient ones, and one, relatively modern one. And I have adopted some good values and I hope my friends can see those in me, from both cultures. I never thought of total integration, that was never my aim or goal, but total integration professionally was definitely an objective. But socially and culturally, religiously, I wanted to maintain my cultural identity at the same time appreciate the cultural diversity of the United States and respect peoples’ differences.
JM: Do you still have strong ties in India?
PM: Oh, certainly! My parents are gone, my siblings are gone; I am the only one of six siblings alive. But I have many nephews, I have many nieces. My wife has some brothers living; her sisters are gone. And she has numerous nephews and nieces. And she keeps in touch with them on a daily basis.
JM: Do you go and visit?
PM: I have not visited for a long time. She visited back in 2001 or 2000, I think. Right now our health issues prevent us from traveling, but if we get better, yes, we will start traveling again. But she has a brother who lives in Phoenix, her youngest brother, who by the way is the one who gave her his kidney.
JM: Oh, she got a transplanted kidney from him.
PM: She is alive because of her baby brother, who is a pediatrician in Phoenix. And I have two nephews from my youngest brother, who also live in the United States; one in Phoenix and one in California. And my wife has a nephew, her sister’s son, who is a physician up in Buffalo, New York.
JM: I see. So did they all come after you came to the U.S.?
PM: Oh yes. Oh yes.
JM: So you brought over the family tree over here?
PM: No, I brought over my brother, youngest brother, who is no more, but of course my nephews were born here. And my wife’s nephew came on his own. He is a very ambitious young man. He is an MD, so he was able to get his own residency offer from America. And he is married to an American girl. And my nephew is married to an American girl, and of course my own son, so we are integrated --
JM: Truly interracial integration.
JM: That’s very good! Well, thank you very much, Dr. Mehta.
PM: You are welcome! Thank you.