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Interview with: Col. Rajinder Bhalla
Interviewed by: Jawahar Malhotra
Date: July 28, 2011
JM: Hi! I am 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's interviewee is Col. Raj Bhalla, the President of the India Culture Center of Houston. Col. Bhalla, please give us a little background about yourself?
RB: First of all, I must thank Foundation for India Studies and the Houston Public Library for raising such a unique project and having me here today. I am really honored. And now about me, I come from Ferozepur. It is a town in Punjab, India, and I was born there on October 5, 1930. I did my high school there and Intermediate, what we call FSc. from college there and then later I did my Veterinary Degree from Punjab Veterinary College, and then joined the Army as a Lieutenant in 1953.
JM: Where was the Veterinary College?
RB: It was in Hissar. It was after the partition of the country, so it was established over there as a first college. We were the first class after the partition.
JM: I see. So it was more --
RB: And then after -- then I joined the Services as I said, and that was in 1953, and I served up to 1973. And during this period, 20 years, I was sent by the Army to United States in 1960 and also then to Australia in 1971. So in other words, it was a pretty good innings, I had good training, good service record. But somehow after having come to America, the seed was sown once you come here, and I saw the seriousness, the frankness, the honesty, the character, when I went to the University of Minnesota, but I could not stay back, because I was serving in the Army and I had to go back.
JM: When did you go to the University of Minnesota?
RB: 1960, 60-61 I did my Masters in Veterinary Medicine. And then after I came back, of course the idea was (if)one could come back, luckily the Army does allow after 20 years premature retirement with full benefits.
JM: So you intended to come here?
RB: Yes. And meanwhile what happened, my brother was also already here, my younger brother, so he initiated our immigration papers and everything fell in place. As soon as I completed 20 years in the Army, we got this thing done. The immigration came through, and then I put in my papers. There was good amount of opposition; the Ministry of Finance would not let me go. They said we have spent a lot of money on this man, sending him for training to Australia, to America, now he wants to leave us. But thanks to the Chief of Army Staff, who was at that time General Manekshaw, who later became Field Marshal Manekshaw, he wrote on the file that if the officer wants to better himself, I don't want to come in his way, and he approved, and then the Defense Minister said okay, and everything was final.
JM: So your native tongue is Punjabi?
RB: Punjabi, yes.
JM: And you are a --
RB: I am a Sikh.
JM: A Sikh from Punjab?
JM: So what prompted you to migrate to the U.S.?
RB: As I said before, that was the main thing. You know, although, in the Army also I had a very good secured career, the minimum I could have gone was the rank of a Brigadier, although now the rank has been upgraded to Lieutenant General, but I was definitely set to become a Brigadier, but there is something internal, this kind of adventurous nature, or wanting to take a challenge. And my older son was doing very well; he was in St. Stephens studying economics. Everything was great. But I just put in my papers and then we took the risk. I first came in 1976, April, landed at Kennedy, got my Green Card right off the bat, and drove to this company, which had hired me in India. As a matter of fact, there is a slight thing I should tell you. As a veterinarian in the Army we were allowed private practice and there was a company in Delhi who used to export monkeys to Americas and to UK for biomedical research, and I was there attending veterinarian as a private practice. So they had a company in Long Island, New York.
JM: What was the name of the company?
RB: At that time it was called Primate Imports, but later on it was bought out by a very multinational company called Charles River Laboratories, which later got acquired by Bausch & Lomb, you know, the one who makes sunglasses and Ray-Ban and all that. So to cut the story short, they said, why don’t we send you to America? So here my immigration came, the job, so I got off Kennedy, drove to this company, and I worked for them for 30 years.
JM: So you had a job already waiting for you when you came?
RB: Yes, absolutely! And within ten days my family joined me so we were all set.
JM: So this was in New York?
RB: This was in Port Washington, Long Island, New York.
JM: And you stayed there for how long?
RB: We stayed there 18 years, till the company moved to Houston. So that is how I came to Houston.
JM: Oh, I see! So you came here to help the operations for the company?
RB: Right, right, yes.
JM: So did you find it easy to settle in the U.S. and work?
RB: Well, you know, the previous experience of one year studying at University of Minnesota and then having been in the Services, you are kind of quite up to the speed with regard to what’s going on here and you know exactly what this country is. And secondly, if you know the language I think that makes a big difference, you know the language, you know the customs, so we had absolutely no difficulty, we just moved in. And my younger son went to junior school and the older son went to State University, Stony Brook, and everybody kind of -- we didn’t have any problem.
JM: And your wife was also enthusiastic about coming here?
RB: Oh, she was, not exactly that much, but she said I will go along with you whatever you decide. And the best thing we had was a great support at home. In other words, you know, you get hot meals, laundries taken care of, everything, so we really had no difficulty and got a nice apartment in Port Washington. That is how we started our life here.
JM: And your children were okay with moving?
RB: Children, they were okay, and probably they would have been okay also with their appearance, but somehow I told them, you don’t wear the turban. So I got their turban out. My younger son was particularly opposed to that, but I said, no son, I think it will be better. And as far as I am concerned, believe me, I was the only Indian, the only person wearing a turban in a company with 1,600 employees, and I never even for once was given even an indication that this doesn’t go well or whatever. So that was perfect.
JM: I see! On the subject of the turban, which is an important symbol for Sikhs, did you ever find any impediment to practicing your religion here?
RB: No, absolutely not.
JM: And are you involved in your --
RB: In Long Island we had started a new temple called Gurdwara in Plainview, and in that organization I was one of their trustees, and we raised the Gurdwara to come up, and now I understand it’s doing very well. And then over here also we started one in Southwest Houston, and I was the Vice Chairman of that Gurdwara for almost 3.5 years.
JM: So you didn’t find any barriers to integration here?
RB: Not personally, no, not in our family, we did not have any concerns, no.
JM: I see. So what about interactions with non-Indian neighbors or colleagues or schoolmates, do you have a good rapport, good bonds with many of them?
RB: Schoolmates, as I said, I went to the university postdoctoral, so there was not that many, you know, friends, mostly you met from foreign countries, some from Colombia, somebody from Korea, so we all went our direction. But neighbors, yes, we had very good interaction, very good relation, we would get together on Thanksgiving. And as you know in Long Island, you had strong winters, so we all would shovel snow together, have a glass of beer together. So it was absolutely like any other neighborhood in India. And to quote one example, we were in Washington, D.C., I and my wife went on vacation, and our younger son, he was on a bicycle, he hit the curb and hit his head very badly, and the forehead near the eyebrow, and he was bleeding, and I think for a moment he was knocked off. When he got up some people asked him, where do you live, so they brought him home and then the next door neighbor, that lady, she said, I am not going to get your parents worried, I am going to take you to the hospital. She took him to the hospital, St. Francis Hospital, and she said, I will not let anybody touch this boy till the plastic surgeon comes.
RB: Because I don't want any scar or any -- we had these kind of relations, it's amazing really.
JM: So you received a lot of acceptance here as an immigrant family?
RB: Yes, in Long Island, absolutely, and I think even in Houston, in Sugar Land. First we were in (Alcon Bend) and over there also we had a group of four, five neighbors, we would go out for dinner every month. So I think it has been good. And then go and play golf, go to the club, you meet people, interaction, yes.
JM: You have formed a -- you just described a number of bonds you have formed with your neighbors in the mainstream here, what was your family ties that still exist in India, are they still strong, do you --?
RB: Well, I have a brother and a sister in India, and I have a brother and a sister in America; the ones in America are in California and my sister and brother are in Delhi. The other interesting thing, I think, which also helped in integration is, I am a Freemason, I have joined Freemasonry in India, and when we moved here in 1976, I applied to the local Masonic Lodge to become the member, and that was, we came in April ’76, so they took a little time. And then they used to close the lodge during the summer. So in fall they told me your application is accepted. And then, you know, as we all call ourselves brothers, so I asked them, I said, tell me, why did it take so long? They said, Raj, in the Lodge, as you know, only the master can cover his head with the hat, and when we saw you with the turban we didn't know what to tell you, so we referred your case to the Grand Lodge of State of New York in Manhattan and they gave the ruling that this is his religion and it’s perfectly fine, so that is the reason of delay. And that was in ’76, and in 1982 I was the Master of the same Lodge.
JM: How interesting!
RB: Yeah. I went through the ladder, and then I became the Master, the Trustee of the Lodge, and I held their very, very sacred account called Tibbits Fund, till I moved to Houston I maintained that.
JM: I see.
RB: We used to give scholarships to the high school students and taking part in different, you know, like Memorial Day Parade, Blood Drive, Brotherhood Fund, Seniors, and Utica Masonic home. So once you get involved in the mainstream activities, I think all these stereotype or unnecessary apprehensions are kind of, you know --
JM: Did you have to educate people of your religion or your culture?
RB: Not exactly, but every time when you become more familiar with people, they will ask you, what is this turban? You know, does it have to match with your clothes, or does the color of the turban has to do with any day of the week? Or how long it is? Or do you wrap it everyday? Well, those are the curiosity questions I think, and once they find out, and then they ask you about your religion and you tell them what it is.
JM: I see, yeah. What about interracial marriages, are they any in your family?
RB: Yes, yes, my both sons got married to mainstream Americans, but somehow or the other, I don't know how to put it, but the way the world goes, both ended up in divorce. And then the second one is remarried to a girl, she is from England, English girl, and the older boy got remarried to an Indian Sikh girl, but that's the way the society is, you have to take it, you know.
JM: Do you have any grandchildren?
RB: Yes, I have two grandsons and one granddaughter. My grandson is studying in Columbia, and the younger grandson is very, very young, because my younger son, who got recently married, and the granddaughter is also in college. She is -- both grandson and granddaughter, because they are from two different sons, so they are almost the same age, about 20 years old.
JM: Are they aware of their heritage, the Sikh heritage?
RB: Oh yes. My grandson of course, he has been to India two, three times, and they are pretty much -- they go to Gurdwara, go to temple.
JM: Yes, I see. And in your work, did you find any obstacles to achieve, to overcome?
RB: I am sorry, no. I had very smooth sailing. I think here the name of the game is you produce, and if you produce, then there is no end, the sky is the limit, you know, and that’s what I saw.
JM: What about your community, you are the President of the India Culture Center here in Houston, so have you been very involved in your own community activities here?
RB: Till about 2006, I will be very honest, I was not that much involved, because my work was quite a bit, being the President of the company I had a lot of travel to do and also to look at the bottom line and all the day-to-day problems, so I was kind of concentrating on my job. But after I retired, then I took part in India House, I was one of their Directors, I am still their Director. I was in their Executive Committee as a Secretary, and we were responsible for bringing up India House, which everybody in Houston knows about it, rather in whole of America, and know about this unique institution.
JM: Explain a little bit what India House is?
RB: Well, India House is a community center, which is -- the overall plan is close to $20 million, but the first phase was about $6 million, which we supported from the funds from the community. And we also got half a million dollar from the City of Houston, we got from Fondren Foundation and a couple of other foundations, and Chase Bank, smaller amounts. But $1 million was given by Jindals, a very big company in India, and also $1 million committed by Mr. Yalamanchili and lot of other Indian industrialists like Durga Agrawal and Dr. Mathur, many others, they have contributed very heavily into it. And this community center basically is catering to the local community as well as Indian-American community. We have computer classes there, legal clinic, medical clinic, and it has a banquet hall, and these days, since I am not now so closely involved after I resigned, not I should say resigned, I left the job because in order to become President of ICC there was some kind of an indication that there could be conflict of interest, so I had to resign the position from the Executive Committee. However, I know that they are running daycare center. So it is all community-based services being provided over there.
JM: And it is located in Southwest Houston?
RB: Yeah, it is 8888 West Bellfort.
JM: West Bellfort, in Gessner I understand it?
JM: I see. So now you are --
RB: And after that, then I also joined India Culture Center as a Director, and with the kindness of my colleagues they elected me unanimously as their President this year.
JM: And the India Culture Center has been around for a very long time, in fact, it’s probably the oldest.
RB: The oldest organization in Houston, Greater Houston Area of Indian-Americans, I think about 36 years old.
JM: Yeah. And some of their activity -- what are your activities --
RB: Yes, it is to promote culture and also to celebrate India’s main national events like Republic Day celebration, Independence Day --
JM: Which is in January. In India we celebrate it on January 26th, Independence Day on August 15th, and then Gandhi’s birthday, which is on October 2nd, as well as 30th January, the Martyrdom Day of Gandhiji. In addition, we also collaborate with other Indian-American organizations in celebrating Diwali. Then we also have introduced, you must have heard, Leaders Conference, we do that. So we are pretty much involved. And also we started celebrating Eid from last year, and we are now well in preparation for Eid this year.
JM: Eid is the Muslim celebration after Ramadan.
RB: After Ramadan.
JM: Which will happen this year around August 21st.
RB: Yeah, that is when the Ramadan period goes after the fasting and the Eid, what we do and, what we call this event is Eid Milan, which means we just get together, it’s a reunion, and that is now slated for September 17th this year.
JM: I see. That is the newest addition to the activities of the India Culture Center.
RB: Yeah, right.
JM: So have you also been involved in local politics?
RB: No, I have not been involved in local politics.
JM: I see. So with so much going on with the India Cultural Center and the India House, do you see any compromise in the values of Indians or religion-wise, culture-wise, and specifically also in your own family’s case?
RB: I believe that there are lot of values which we have in our culture, in our traditions, and by the same token there are great values which we have to learn and imbibe from the country of our adoption. There are lot of great values from us, and simultaneously we have to look to those values. And I think the American values are summed up very well in, like when we say, you know, One Country, Under God, Liberty And Justice For All, so that says it all. And I think that is in itself a great thing to go by, to follow, and our cultures are of nonviolence and compassion. And also we need to learn something about charity. I know we Indians give a lot of charity, but our charity is funneled and channeled towards our Temples, Gurdwaras. I think we need to go more into the mainstream organization and those charitable causes and should be giving there. And that is one thing that I have learned having come to the United States.
JM: I see. So you really truly feel an American now?
RB: Well, I may not look one, but I am very much one.
JM: So is there any fear in your mind about losing your culture or maybe for your children?
RB: I think it is a very well-founded fear amongst all of us. However, this can be taken care of if we continue providing cultural values, and we pass on and disseminate our traditions to our posterity, to our next generation, and I am sure it will, it will carry on. But if not, then like anything else, it will be a forgotten thing.
JM: So describe maybe some of the -- a good anecdote from you experience here in the U.S., is there something that really stands out, work-wise or perhaps in your family as they were integrating into the American society; is there anything here in particular that stands out?
RB: I don’t know, it might be sounding like that, but to me it appears everything in the normal course. I think my biggest, if I want to call them achievements, or if I want to say that I really made a mark, was the very first thing when I began the Master of the Lodge, it was in the paper, the first Indian who has become a Master of a Lodge, that somehow I felt it was something -- you know, had to come that way. And then when I was in the company where I started as an Assistant Veterinarian, ended up as a President within a period of seven years, and after that I couldn’t go any further, so I was like that. But they regarded me, and the overall Chairman, President, the CEO, he was the one, and second one was me who was driving the same car, because he said that you have earned it. So what I am saying is that, here if you do your work diligently, it's very well-rewarded, in my experience. And I have seen the same thing with my two children. They are, with the grace of God, doing very well, both are physicians and so --
JM: Did you continue on with your Lodge over here in Houston?
RB: Yes, now I am a member of Richmond Lodge, I go there.
JM: I see. Okay. Do you find other Indians there at this point?
RB: I haven’t seen any. Somehow I don’t think it is that much popular. Even otherwise we are feeling that the younger generation is not so much attracted to masonry, they are probably going more into Rotary, Lions Club, and all that. But this is one of the very ancient organization, very, very ancient, actually George Washington was also a freemason, and he took the oath of his office on a Bible which was found in the Masonic Lodge and --
JM: I see. Do you visit India still?
RB: Yes, we go every couple of years, and we are again planning to go in October
JM: I see. Do you see any changes in the attitudes of people there towards Americans?
RB: Tremendous, tremendous, the change is totally reverse now. There was a time when you go to India and they used to look towards you, oh, here is a guy who has come from America, you know, your American Express card, and your money and all that, but now, now in fact they say, if you are looking for some bargain and go to that store, you know, now India is a different India, and we are really kind and great.
JM: But do any of your other members of your family want to come here?
RB: No, no, no. My sister’s children came for education, they came, and they went back. They said we don’t want to stay, we will go back to India.
JM: I see. Well, thank you so much Col. Bhalla. That’s very refreshing to hear your point of view.
RB: Thank you Jawahar, it's really wonderful and very nice. And thank you.
JM: Thank you.