Coincidence or Divine Act

Sandhiprakash Bhide

In 1981 when I came to this country, it was a different world.  There was no Internet, WhatsApp, or cell phones.  World was simple and yet complicated and tough on a day to day basis. Calling India was an expensive proposition at 100 rupees for a 3 min call and the call had to be booked hours in advance.  Even the long distant service provided by Mountain Bell was quite expensive.  The airmail letter would take 2 weeks to reach India.  There were no PCs.  Only a Wyse terminal connected to the main frame at speeds of 1200 bauds and everything was textual, no user interfaces, and all the communication happened through a command line interface.  No gigabit downloads.  There were no ink jet printers, laser printers, just dot matrix printers.  The removable storage was on 8” floppies, the 5.25” had not even arrived.  The largest drive was a 92M, 10 platter, 20 heads, 13’’ diameter disk pack that resembled a multilayered  cake and the drive was as a big as a washing machine.  So you get the idea, life was quite simple, but communication was expensive.

 

I landed in New York on an Air India 747, then in Denver via Continental 727 and then to Laramie on a Braniff Convair 440 Turboprop. I had taken admission at the University of Wyoming, department of Computer Science.  In Laramie, there were only 3 taxis in town, the airport was a single storied small building, and there were more antelopes in Laramie than the entire state of Wyoming.  There were only 5,000 people at that time (20,000 when students returned) in the entire town.  Out of state tuition and fees were $6600 and the basement apartment cost was $75/month including utilities and where once a week a bunch of Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis got together based on who was cooking that week and made huge amount of cooked rice and daal.  We feasted on that for weeks at a time, the grains and rice mostly came from a monthly trip to Denver.  Of course, there were no Indian restaurants, no vegetables, no cilantro, no pickles, and no condiments (BTW, there are now two Indian restaurants in Laramie.  There is one on the Grand Avenue and the other one at I-80 truck stop.  This was featured on July 19, 2020 on CBS (Read this fascinating story https://www.cbsnews.com/news/a-taste-of-india-at-a-wyoming-truck-stop/ “A taste of India at a Wyoming truck stop”). 

 

In general, being a graduate student, the money was tight but luckily enough within the first month I got a teaching scholarship which made my life a little easier, especially considering I came with an educational loan secured at INR8.33 to a dollar.  Life has certainly changed since then.

Before coming to the USA, my exposure to the USA came from a magazine called “SPAN” circulated by the United States Information Service (USIS), Voice of America (VoA)’s Breakfast Show with Pat Gates and the Jazz Hour with Willis Conover and from a number of engineers like Bob Toomey from Digital Equipment Corporation who visited Hinditron Computers Ltd., where I worked and from Allart Litenberg from HP who visited Central Water and Power Research Station (CWPRS) in Pune where I was a summer intern, and where he was instrumental in installing HP 2100 data logger machines.  I used to have fascinating conversations with them about the USA, its people, the country, the American football, the national parks like Yellowstone, the western movies like MacKenna's Gold, NASA, HP, Tektronix whose oscilloscopes I used in my college and of course American women.  Needless to say, I was fascinated by the USA as a country from the glossy pictures in SPAN and longed to visit and come here for studies.  The country was calling me to visit.  And here my dream had come true.  And I was in state WY where I knew it was a pioneer in many areas: first national park – Yellowstone, first national monument – Devil’s Tower, and first national forest – the Yellowstone. Luckily, Laramie, WY is also about 383 miles from the geographical center of the contiguous 48 states.  So, I was perfectly situated right in the middle of the United States.

So, besides studying, one of my main dreams was to travel and explore the country as I saw in SPAN, see places, and being in the geographical center of the USA meant I could visit many places with comparative ease. So the very first thing that I did was to a buy a car, now that I was rich man with graduate assistantship!  One of the graduate students, Joseph Digrande studying sculpture was graduating the same semester, so he wanted to sell his car (He is an educator, a sculpture and a poet and went on to write a book called the Stone and the Candle and is currently he is a Director of Nenana school district, Alaska.) which my Math admin, Marian Karsh thought was a lemon and that I was coerced into buying it.  I paid $700 for a 4th hand Mazda RX-2 rotary engine, 4 door sedan with over 150,000 miles but once I got the rotor resurfaced (no piston rings for a rotary), it was ready like new bride (I eventually drove the Mazda from Laramie to Hillsboro when I secured job at Intel and used it until 1988 after putting additional 150,000 miles on it.  Of the two license plates, I kept one and I gave one as a memento to Joseph Digrande when he visited me in Portland 2003.  I still keep in touch with him after 40 years).

Then thereafter, every weekend, every long weekend, every holiday, I started traveling.  Of course studying was still a priority #1.  It started with a daylong trips and then longer trips. Of course, with the 4-seater sedan, 3 more friends started joining in my travel endeavors.  It all started with trips to Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton, Devils Tower National Monument, Flamingo Gorge National Monument, Snowy Range Mountains, Medicine Bow National Forest, Mount Rushmore, Fort Collins, Colorado Springs, Gunnison National Park, Durango, Rocky Mountain Park, Dinosaur National Monument, Great Sand Dunes National Monument, Silverton, Telluride, Royal Gorge Bridge near Canon City, and in some case my reach extended to NM and Texas all the way to San Antonio and Houston.  

Being graduate students with little money, the prime travel costs were fuel, hotel and food.  The fuel cost was shared among passengers.  The accommodations were carefully planned by choosing a route so every 300 to 400 miles of our journey, we had home of somebody’s relative to crash at, or one of the fellow graduate students who happened to be at university town where we piled on, and devoured their week’s food supply to offset our food cost.  It was not necessarily one of our friends but we truly used the computer science construct called “Linked List” which meant it could be a friend’s friend, an acquaintance, or somebody’s sister’s friend’s uncle’s cousin.  All we cared was a place at night to stay with an expectation of free dinner and free breakfast before we left for the next part of our journey.  After all, we were poor graduate students, bachelors, and always hungry at age of around 25. Of course, this was a barter system which meant the favors were retuned when any of our friends were also passing through Laramie.  Hamburgers and cheeseburgers were 29 cents and 39 cents respectively at McDonalds and that was our staple food at lowest prices.

One of my friends, Raja Nag who is now a professor of finance at New York Institute of Technology had a sister in Toronto, and he wanted to see her but had no money to fly out. So four of us, Raja Nag, a Pakistani named Asif Ali doing BS in electrical engineering, Sankar Sambasivan a PhD student in Chemistry and I decided we would drive from Laramie to Toronto, so we could help Raja out and in the process see the country as well. We decided to take the route from Laramie to Fort Collins, and then through Denver, Topeka, St. Louis, Urbana-Champaign, Chicago, Ann Arbor, Detroit, Windsor and into Toronto.  Now, that is about 1800 miles (gas then was leaded at 99 cents /gallon) and if you look at the map, that is close to 2/3 width of the country.  We had friends at every location except Chicago.  Our thinking was at worst we will have to find a motel or we would figure things out when we got there.  

By the way, our primary directions came from AAA state and city maps.  We made our journey comfortably on free accommodation and free food without much trouble and eventually reached Chicago where we had no place to stay. We were tired of driving by the time we reached there at 6:30pm.  We found a downtown McDonald, ordered some fries, strawberry milkshake, hamburger, chicken nuggets and picked up a window seat right next to the road and wondered where we would stay that night.  The evening was getting dark, we were tired and needed to rest and get some good sleep.  As we were looking here and there wondering about our plan of action and vaguely come to conclusion that we had no choice but to find a motel 6 or some cheap motel owned by some Indian, so we could shamelessly ask for student discount even for a $59/night.  I guess when you are a poor graduate student on meager teaching assistantship; you have to park the ego outside the motel, so to say and which is what we were planning to do.

“Hey, I think I know the guy who just passed by”, exclaimed Asif.  It took 10 seconds for us to process that and even to say, what?  When we came to our senses, we shouted at him “Run”, chase him (as that was our ray of hope for that evening).  Now while we were sitting next to the window, we must not have seen him for more than 100 milliseconds and plus we were not even looking for him to begin with.  But, the amazing pair of eyes supplemented by tired brain captured a fast moving blurry image of a human being late in the evening and darkening skies, processed that image, did a database search of millions of images stored in the brain, pattern-matched, and gave a decision.  What can be more fascinating?  Asif’s brain had done search in real time faster than what Google search can do even do today (of course Google did not exist then).

Asif got out of McDonald and started running.  It was a typical crowded evening in Chicago with many people walking swiftly and hurriedly heading for home.  Asif ran after him like a cheetah, and this man by that time had already walked two or three blocks. Asif remembered his face but he did not remember what he wore to recognize him from the back.  It is a miracle that he even recognized him from the back and plus the man could have taken a cross road, or gotten into a shop, or stepped into a restaurant.  But that day, the stars were aligned.  Asif stopped him and vaguely said “I think I know you from somewhere”. The man looked baffled as his brain disk started accessing and momentarily blurted out “were you a student at the University of Karachi?” followed by “Oh, ya, me too!” said Asif in utter disbelief.  The dart had hit the target right on the dot.  As it happened neither of them knew each other’s names.  We came to know that he was Yaseen, two years senior to Asif.  

It is true that sometimes you just remember other students on the campus by face and see them here and there in passing.  They are not even your acquaintances, but your brain takes notes of the surroundings unconsciously and stores the data.  They were both at the university for about 6 years before that.  Call it a miracle, or coincidence or divine Act, I am not sure.  But think about the statistical probability of two individuals meeting in downtown Chicago, where each of them came to the USA two years apart after graduating from University of Karachi, from the other side of the globe, one headed to Chicago, the other headed to Laramie, WY.  Then we drove 1400 miles to get there from Laramie to Chicago, we all sat at that specific McDonald, where Asif happened to sit by the window, happened to look outside at the same time. Yaseen happen to walk by the same window, and the light conditions were just right, and Yaseen happened to walk by the same side of the road, and was walking in the direction facing Asif so his face could be seen.  Asif’s brain search was also contextually driven because we were desperate.  Other times, his brain could have ignored this visual input. You can also bring up clichés like “Will will find a way” or “It was written in our destiny”, or “You must have done something right in your life to deserve this”, or “It was your good karma”.  Whatever you call it, it shook me at the core that such a thing could even be possible.  It is intriguing but also scarily coincidental, and mysteriously spooky.  No matter, it was an amazing happenstance. 

Asif introduced himself and all of us, told him that we were headed to Toronto, and that we needed a place to stay and that we were hungry and tired.  Yaseen was gracious enough to pile on as a fifth person in a four seater sedan as we headed to his apartment.  We were treated with simple rice, chapattis, chicken, and daal and that was best hot and home cooked meal of our entire journey.  Of course, one conversation led to the other, and they found other dozen connections from the University of Karachi and common friends.  We all slept on the floor in our sleeping bags, had a good night sleep, had tea and buttered toast in the morning and headed for Toronto, the next day wondering about whether it was a miracle, or coincidence or divine Act.