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August 18, 1999
'My Friends Call Me Mo'
Natesh C Mohan was last week named the winner of the Journey Home Contest. He was selected from hundreds of remarkable tales of immigrant hope and courage. The grand prize offers a journey home to any destination that American Airlines flies and includes roundtrip airfare for two, and two nights' accommodation.
The contest was organized to mark New York City's 100th birthday, and was sponsored by
The contest was organized to mark New York City's 100th birthday, and was sponsored byThe New York Times, American Airlines, the Chase Manhattan Bank and the hit musical Ragtime, an immigrant saga based on E L Doctrow's best-selling novel. Doctrow was one of the judges.
Scene: Kennedy Airport, June 28, 1964.
Players: A stern looking immigration inspector and me, a 15-year-old boy wearing a very thick new wool suit with white shirt and tie and sweating profusely, only partially from the temperature. I had $ 58 in my pocket, $ 8 of which the Government of India had allowed to anyone leaving the country, and the rest which was a special dispensation from the Reserve Bank of India for the purpose of buying a winter coat for the harsh New York winters, a coat which presumably could not be purchased in New Delhi.
"Last name first, First name last, Middle initial," said the inspector. "What seems to be the problem?"
"Sir, I am having a little trouble with the last name, first name business. I don't think I have a last name, what should I do?"
"Very simple, son. What's your father's name?"
"A M Natesh, sir."
"Well, then your last name is Natesh."
"No, Sir, Natesh is my father's FIRST name. I don't want to be called Mr Natesh, so that can't be my last name."
"Then, if you don't want to be called Mr Natesh, you want to be called Mr What?" (I hadn't yet heard the Abbott and Costello routine).
I said: "I want to be called, Mr Mohan, sir."
"Well, then your last name is Mohan."
"But sir, my first name is Mohan, how can it be my last name?"
"If your first name is Mohan, what does your father call you?"
"No. No; I didn't ask you what your call your daddy. What does your DADDY call YOU?"
"Daddy, Sir. He calls me Daddy."
"Your Daddy calls YOU..... DADDY!" (The stern inspector was getting more stern...)
"Yes, Sir. My daddy calls me daddy." (This is quite usual among Telugus where fathers call their infant sons "Naina" which stands for daddy. My father, having decided early in my life I was destined for America decided to use the English translation, not expecting this curious exchange at Kennedy.)
"Well, then, what does your MOTHER call you?"
"I guess that is the same as Mohan, so why don't we just say that your first name is Mohan?"
"It is, Sir. But I still don't want to be called Mr Natesh when I grow up. So what do you want to be put down as my last name?"
"Your passport says N Chandra Mohan; so do you want Mohan to be your last name? What is this Chandra?"
"Sir, Chandra Mohan is really one word; Chandra means Moon. I was born under the influence of ..."
"Yes, yes, that's fine... Why don't you make C your middle initial?"
"That's fine, sir. C could be my middle initial. What should I put down for my last name?" (The line behind me was getting long; this was before the Immigration Office had figured out the efficiencies of single queues, multiple servers. The officer had had enough.)
"We are going to do just the way your passport says. Period! N stands for Natesh, right? So, Natesh is going to be your first name. Your middle initial will be C. And your last name will be Mohan. Now, write that down."
"Yes, sir. But I'd like my friends to call me Mohan...."
"I DON'T care what your friends call you; now, fill out the rest of this form!"
So there I was! Natesh C Mohan, a newly minted persona in la la land. Later that evening, I was to encounter other New York incongruities like someone asking me "if I liked the Yankees" to which my answer was, quite respectfully, "Of course, sir. I like the Yankees," having no idea that this had to do with a sport and not a nationality.
Someone else had asked me to telephone them that I was never able to complete the call because I didn't know not to dial the whole word KINGSBRIDGE. In their phone number which was Kingsbridge 7-1234.
Postscript: This week, 35 years later, now being an American citizen, I applied at the Indian consulate for a visa to visit the old country. I am taking my Bronx-born wife, my three New York-born daughters, one son-in-law, and one daughter's boyfriend to experience the land where I grew up, flying kites and playing cricket.
The first two girls have degrees from Fordham, NYU, and Boston College; and the third is on her way to Tulane. More importantly, the girls have chosen careers in service and are dedicated to helping others achieve independence, dignity, and the wonder of America.
These days, I have a little more than $ 58 in my pocket. My colleagues call me Nat. My friends call Mo.
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