Most universities in the midwest have a sizable Indian student population, which is loosely knit into some kind of a community. Like entropy, the size of this community keeps getting larger, people go in and out and very soon you only happen to know just a handful of people. Others lose their identity and become another pretty, albeit anonymous, Indian face - unless they happen to run your Indian Associations and in our case, they happen to be a Tominath Dutta.
Allright, next you are going to ask me who the heck was Tominath Dutta anyway and how come all desis in town knew him ? Let me try to answer you, but it is impossible to get the gestalt of Tominath, maybe some components, but no, never the whole story.
He was the kind of guy who never went to the IITs, never had any pretentions of any sophisticated westernization while in India. He was here for a Ph. D in Math, which is very difficult for most people to do, and that was why people thought he was so naive with the ways of the world, its street-smartness. He couldn't even buy a bag of onions without goofing up in a major way. Many IIT nerds would dismiss him as a silly geek. He was your and my version of the village idiot, only he also happened to be a genius in mathematics. A darling of the crowds. Also known as the bakra, murga (goat, rooster) who was the source material for a number of real and some made up, desi community legends. Even the most stupid guy would feel compelled to harass Tominath and feel superior and most of the time Tominath wouldn't even realize he was being the butt of all the jokes. He believed in the general decency of all human beings. And despite others' perception of him, he was perpetually happy and content.
Somewhere, somehow, someone christened him 'Bong' and the name stuck to him like a scotch tape. Like other terms of endearment, such as Surd and Southy, this was also more a tag and his Bengaliness was never an issue. Even Arunavo Majumdar called him Bong, perhaps to distance himself from Tominath.
"Bong, what does your name Tominath mean ? You Bongs always have exotic names" Some curious person asked.
"Tominath means 'the moon'" replied Bong.
"But Bong, which part of your name then means 'the' ?" asked the same curious guy. As if on a cue, everyone burst into guffaws and laughs in various octaves. A good punchline. A new 'Bong episode' is thus brought into the world.
We don't know how true this incident is, but some people swear by it. It seems Bong had wanted to go to the Niagara Falls once and someone convinced him not to go that day because the Niagara Falls is closed on sundays. Bong was told that he could go if he wanted to, only they would have stopped the water from flowing and he would only see the barren mountain wall. Naturally, Bong went only the next day.
Every two weeks or so his fly would be completely open and janata would go into paroxysms of joy. There was even a betting pool regarding when next he would walk around with an open fly. But Bong didn't care. His work was what was supremely important to him. Sale at the Penney's or the Cosby Show or Indian Association diwali dinners, open flies can all go to hell. Sometimes he skipped dinners. Some people were jealous of him, but rationalized it as "He is so dumb. His slavedriving advisor must be sucking his blood. I will never do this, because I want to have fun too".
Another time, a gang of fresh desis had stopped by at our place where Bong had also made a pit stop. We discussed all pertinent topics ranging from applying for credit cards to snow and how long it stays on ground and of course, girls. Then Bong told the new students. "O, There was a cold babe last year and we had a few tough nights. We thought it would get better and we would get some sleep. We couldn't even go to work. The cold babe was around for a whole week."
"Maybe you should have tried out some foreplays or massage. Sometime women are cold and men have to stimulate them and they will be more responsive".
"No no, I was talking about cold babe, like heat babe that we have in summers". Bong explained.
Then it rained one day in Pittsburgh. It rains everyday in Pittsburgh. I was crawling along in my father's Oldsmobile, fighting with the fogging windshield when I spotted a human sponge, soaked to the bone. It was Bong. I gave him a ride. "Bong, you forgot your umbrella ?" "No, I don't have one. I have been meaning to buy one. One of these days". Soon, this became the joke. Everyone who met him would ask him if he bought his umbrella yet. No, he did not.
"Bong, are you going to wait till winter and snow ?"
"No, I think I will buy it day before tomorrow, mane kol, mane parson, day after tomorrow"
And he did, at the most expensive store, for twenty dollars. This quickly made the desi gossip circles. "Did you know Bong finally bought a chattha for twenty bucks?" "Nahin, I heard it was more like thirty bucks, that too on sale, I think it is a lady's umbrella" followed by more laughs.
On the fourth day, Bong lost his umbrella, unable to remember where in the world he left it. A few hours later, he gave up looking for it. It is okay to be drenched in the rain, he told me. After all, desis are more resistant to cold and rain. Pretty soon the 'Bong ka chattha' story was told and retold with great relish and every visitor to town or entering desi student was informed of it.
Another time, in one of those zillion desi pot luck dinners, guys sat around in a circle with beers and told jokes. It generated a really congenial atmosphere. Bong was having a time of his life, like most of us. I hadn't heard some of those jokes since my high school days. Then Bong spoke up. "Do you know Maarphee's Golden Rule ?" "No, Bong, tell us". "He who has gold, rules" said Bong, splitting himself laughing and when he laughed it was like a volley of machine gun fire. Everyone tried to see what was so funny about it. Soon another urban legend was born. Bong's Murphy's golden rule joke. Folks would ask him to tell the 'golden rule' joke repeatedly and he would willingly oblige, till one day he too caught on and felt that the reaction was not justified, considering it wasn't a bad joke, after all.
"Poor guy, you are all so mean, picking on him all the time" Mrs. Desi Student would say, in mock sympathy to the victim, while all along feeling quite proud of her own provider-husband and his smartness. "Yesterday I saw him in McDonald's. He looked funny trying to eat a Big Mac".
Then one day we just stopped seeing him around. "I am too busy bith research bork" he confessed. His roommates announced to the world that he had not done his laundry in several months. And then he moved to a one bedroom apartment and just disappeared. "Did you know Bong left town" someone told us "He got a job shob. He must be raising hell somewhere at this very minute. But there is a Bong junior who has joined Civil Engineering. His name is Arvind. Someone told him to open an account in the World Bank because they had better interest rates and he actually called them up. It was so funny. The other day Raju sent him a computer mail as if it was from one of the girls and he actually called up this girl. It was a riot and the other day ....."
Epilog: A few years later I happened to go to the Big Apple because a friend of mine had to do 'India shopping'. We had just entered a store in Jackson Heights with a name like 'Sabzi Mandi', which had a million VCRs, the typical Indian grocery store smell and of course, milling crowds haggling over things. I was browsing through a bunch of cassettes with generic titles like "Sitar Concert II" and "Dard bhare geet" when I looked and saw who else but Bong ! It was a big time deja vu !
"Hi Bong, Kamo nacho ? What in the world are you doing here ?" "Hi Romesh, I am just bisiting my sister-in-law. By the bay, meet my wife Sushmita". The extremely beautiful and hep looking woman by his side shook my hands and said a very cheery hello. Bong, marrying this woman ? Does she know that he would go around telling his Murphy's golden rule joke ? "Romesh, remember Maarphee's Golden rule ? Ha ha. Mita, I told you. We used to have a lot of fun. These days I am in the Silicon Bhalley. I started out teaching at Cal State. Now I work for a desi softbare company. But I might move out if they don't give me good stock purchase option. Don't tell anybody, but I might even go alone and do consulting. Bisit us sometime."
"Yes, you must visit us. We just built this new house with
jacuzzi and all. You should visit the Bay area while it is
still there. Tomi and I are really looking forward to having
people around." said his wife, in chaste english, coyly clinging
to his side. I was still trying to grasp the enormity of the
situation. How did Bong transform ? Could it be that the moment
he stepped out of the womb-like university environment and into
the real world his personality changed for the better? After
all, he had a tremendous native intelligence. Or could it be
that his charming wife, bless whoever that arranged their
marriage, has been micro-managing his every move smartly ? How
could one figure this out ? Then, suddenly, Valleyboy Tomi,
the new incarnation of Bong, turned around and asked me, "By the
bay, Bhaat are YOU doing these days ?"