THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: One day, in 1963, Joseph M Cheruvelil entered a restaurant in Mississippi, along with a white man, David Smith (name changed). They waited for several minutes, but were not served. Finally, David went to the cash counter and said, “Are you blind? Can’t you see us? We need food.”
The man did not say anything. However, a few minutes later, his boss came out and said, looking at Joseph, “We cannot serve this ‘boy’.” (In the Mississippi of those times, anyone who was coloured was called a boy, whether he was 10 or 50 years old).
David said, “Why not?”
The owner said, “This is Mississippi. Get the hell out.”
David went out and got a hunting gun from his car. Then he walked back in and said, “Give us food or else.....”
It was then that Joseph began to feel nervous. “I realised that if he did something drastic, the police would come,” he says, while on a brief visit to Kochi. “We would have been labelled as ‘Communists’ or ‘trouble makers’. So I ran out.”
David followed, cursed Joseph, and said, “Are you a coward? You don’t want to change society?”
Joseph said, “I could have got killed just trying to have some food. I was a young person, and had a life ahead of me. I had to think about my siblings and parents back home in Kerala. I have no regrets about the decision I made.”
This anecdote has been recounted in Joseph’s beautifully-written but large (764 pages) autobiography, ‘A Passage to America - notes of an adopted son’.
The book deals with Joseph’s childhood at Kannadi village in Kuttanad, his graduate years at University College in Thiruvananthapuram, his stints of teaching at Christ College, Irinjalakuda, and St. Xavier’s College in Tirunelveli. In 1960, he secured a scholarship, went to the United States, and studied for five years in two universities: Loyola University in Chicago, and the University of Mississippi. Thereafter, he became a teacher of English at St. John’s University, New York, for 39 years.
The idea to write the book was a seed within him for many years. “Whenever I read a good book, I would say to myself, ‘Gee, I should try to write something like this’,” he says. “But my teaching took all of my energy and attention. So when I retired, in 2005, I thought I should write something.”
Joseph took three-and-a-half years to write the book. And he has covered an array of subjects: education, family, children, living within one’s needs, personal finances, politics, leadership, and government spending. “I also wrote about people who feel lost during cultural and economic revolutions, as well as the underdogs, the helpless, and handicapped,” he says.
Joseph has aimed the book for a specific audience. “In America, this is for the second-generation immigrants, who do not have a clear picture of India,” he says. “In India, I wanted to give the college-going generation an idea of life in the United States, its history, culture, society, and technology.”
When asked whether the Twitter generation will have the patience to read such a big book, Joseph says, “I don’t expect anybody to read the entire book. They can read parts of it. But I was keen to document the changes which have taken place in the past 100 years.”
However, there have not been many changes in the education system in India. “In fact, the system is rigid,” says Joseph. “If you studied four years and missed the final examination you will have to wait for a while for your next chance. In the American system, for a BA degree, you have to complete 36 courses. You can finish it in 36 years or 4 years. Usually, it is 9 courses each year. But some students take courses in summer only, so they finish it in three years.”
Interestingly, 25 per cent of American students work full-time during the day. So, they go to evening school, from 6 to 9 pm. Because of this, some may take between five to seven years to complete a degree. Now, many older people are going to college, especially when they are closer to retirement. Others go back to college to advance their careers. “If a policeman in New York gets a BA degree, he is entitled to a promotion,” says Joseph. “So he will take evening courses. This flexibility is a good incentive for a lot of people to get an education. In India, education is boxed in.”
Joseph is also disconcerted by the concept of donations in Kerala schools and colleges. “There is no school or college in the United States which admits a student based on donations,” he says. “On the other hand, financial aid is given to the economically weak students. Sometimes, they will ask you to take a loan, at the lowest interest, from the government.”
Finally, when asked to self-describe himself, Joseph says, “I left as a loyal citizen of India. Then I became a citizen of the US. And recently I became an overseas citizen of India. I am eclectic in taste, a Catholic by religion, and a Hindu by culture.”