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Moving Memories

A Shy Kiss

… and the story of the lost blue vinyl suitcase
By Himanee Gupta-Carlson |
AUGUST 25, 2020
A photograph of my parents ran in an Iowa newspaper on October 27, 1961. It shows a suitcase full of saris and my mother, Shailla, giving my father, Naim, a kiss.

“I didn’t want to do that,” my mother told me, “but they insisted. ‘C’mon, just give your hero a kiss,’ the reporter said.”

“I told her that if my father saw such a photo he would kill me.”

My parents do not speak a lot about their first few years in America, though my father, born in 1932, recently created a handwritten log of recollections and has asked me to turn those details into stories of his life. Those stories might be mirrors of the experiences of other Indian immigrants who entered the United States before the 1965 Hart-Celler Immigration and Nationality Act, especially those who did not land in metropolitan cities on the coasts, but rather in smaller, more rural communities like Cedar Falls, Iowa. That was where my parents made their first home in the United States before moving to Iowa City, then Cleveland, and finally in 1966 to Muncie, Indiana, where they have lived ever since.

From what I have been able to glean from my father’s writings and from my own memories, my parents’ first years in America were years of financial hardship. Before my father finished a doctorate and took a position as a professor at Ball State University, he and my mother cobbled together a variety of jobs and tuition grants to make ends meet while raising three daughters, my younger sisters and myself. As non-meat-eating immigrants in the Midwest in the years before scores of other middle-class, upper-caste Indians arrived, they also had to swallow a hefty dose of culture shock.

For that reason, one story has loomed large in our family lore: the story of the blue vinyl suitcase that held all but one of my mother’s saris, along with jewelry, photos, and other mementos from India. It’s the suitcase in the photograph.

My parents carried the blue suitcase with them from their departure by rail from the Delhi Railway Station to the ship they boarded in Bombay, and through taxis in London where they stayed in a rooming house for a few weeks as they awaited a flight for New York. In New York, the suitcase went with them to Washington, D.C., where it was loaded onto a Greyhound bus bound for Cedar Falls, Iowa, via Chicago.

Somewhere between Washington, D.C., and Cedar Falls, the suitcase was lost. Frantically, my father, 29, and my mother, 25, wrote letters and made telephone calls trying to find it. A local newspaper got wind of the story. It was then picked up by a local TV station and retold at the end of one night’s national news. There was little hope that the suitcase would be located. But then it turned up, at a lost and unclaimed baggage station at a Chicago depot.

Overjoyed, my father traveled to Chicago by bus to fetch it. When he got home, a newspaper photographer arrived to capture the moment.

I tell the story of the lost suitcase and analyze its content in the context of immigrant life in my book Muncie, India(na): Middletown and Asian America (University of Illinois Press, 2018). The book also includes the photograph, with this caption:

Naim and Shailla Gupta, rejoicing over the discovery of a suitcase containing Shailla’s saris in this October 27, 1961, image from the Waterloo Daily Courier newspaper in Iowa. The suitcase, among the belongings the couple brought with them from India, had been lost during the journey from India to the United States.
What my book does not include is the story behind the story of that photograph, and how it came to fall into my mother’s possession and remains so nearly 60 years later. That story came to light in 2017 when my book was going to press, and I needed to obtain permission to reprint the photograph from its original source.

I had no idea what the source was. I only knew that the photograph ran in an Iowa newspaper and that my mother had a copy. She didn’t remember the source, either.

“Was it the college paper?” I asked my mother. “Or a local paper in Cedar Falls?”

“I actually think it was a bigger paper. The reporter came from maybe Waterloo or Des Moines.”

I knew of the Des Moines Register but figured a paper in Waterloo would be a better bet. I googled Waterloo, hoping it had had a local newspaper in 1961 and that it was still in circulation. To my delight, the town did—and still does—have a newspaper, The Daily Courier. Its online archive was easily searchable and free to use. I entered “Gupta” and narrowed the date range to 1961. I got six hits, one of which was the photo itself. A smile broke out over my face as I read the accompanying caption:

BAG AND BAGGAGE, the hero comes home. A happy Mrs. Naim Gupta plants a kiss on the cheek of her persistent husband after he returned home from Chicago with a long-lost suitcase containing 26 of her precious silk saris. The suitcase was lost on the couple’s bus trip from Washington, D.C. to Cedar Falls — one leg of their journey from India, their home, to State College of Iowa, where both are graduate students. Mr. Gupta found the suitcase after combing the luggage and lost and found departments of the Chicago bus terminal.
The photo was preceded by a story that ran on October 1 with the headline, “Sorry, no saris.” That story described the loss of the suitcase and my parents’ search for it. It also brought to light some details of my parents’ lives in those first few months in the United States. It noted that my mother had to learn to wash her own dishes because for the first time in her life she did not have servants, and that she enjoyed the task. She had also found fabric at a local store and was making new saris for herself, even as she held out hope that the suitcase would be found. The story also described the suitcase as mahogany, not blue, in color.

As I explored the other stories in which my parents’ names came up, I got the sense that while they might have been new immigrants experiencing culture shock, they were also adapting to life in America as best as they could. My father spoke on a panel of foreign graduate students about the future of the United Nations. My mother was a teacher in a five-week adult education course called “Foods from Other Lands.” She was also featured in a full-page spread that depicted her dressing another woman in a sari.

About that kiss. My mother was a modest young woman when she first came to America. She and my father met in 1959 via family acquaintances and their marriage was arranged by their parents. My parents were considered “a romantic couple,” as my maternal aunt, Parag, put it during a 2019 celebration of their 60th wedding anniversary, but they certainly did not display affection in public. My mother in fact did not allow my father to kiss her in private until they had been married for several weeks.
Naim and Shailla Gupta leaving India in 1961
On the ship that they took from Bombay to London, my parents became more intimate in the private quarters of the cabin they occupied. But during a port stop in Italy, they saw a couple kissing passionately in public. My mother was so shocked that she stumbled and broke the heel of her shoe.

Kissing her “hero” in front of a newspaper photographer would not have meant her father literally killing her. But it would have produced embarrassment, and perhaps a rebuke.

Still, kissing in public. It was what people did in America. That was my father’s way of rationalizing the request, as he and my mother recollected the story of the lost suitcase years later.

I called the Daily Courier the next day and was transferred to its library. I explained to the librarian that I had a copy of a photograph they had run in the newspaper in 1961, and I wanted to print it in my book. A piece of my parents’ life in America one year before my birth was coming to life. I felt very excited to be a part of it.

The librarian took down my contact information so she could e-mail me a form. She also got interested in the lost suitcase tale and wanted to know more. I felt tears welling up in my eyes as I told her the story. It was such a small detail, but the fact that a stranger in Iowa who lived where my parents had lived nearly six decades earlier cared about this story spoke volumes. It revealed in a sense how little we know about one another as peoples and how much we sometimes hunger to learn.

“I really cannot tell you how much it means to me to have located the source of this photograph,” I remember telling the librarian. “The story of that suitcase has been part of our family for my entire life.”

“And how exciting that you will be sharing it with the world now, in your book,” I remember the librarian responding.

I filled out the form to secure permission to use the photograph in my book, and I e-mailed it to the librarian. A couple days later, she e-mailed me with some surprising news. They did not actually have the photograph in their library, only a microfiche rendition. Neither the photo nor its caption carried a credit, so the photographer herself was unknown.
Naim and Shailla Gupta at their 60th wedding anniversary
How did my mother come to have the photograph? She does not know. Perhaps it was a gift from the unknown photographer to an unknown Indian immigrant couple, marking with a shy kiss the beginning of their life in the United States.

Himanee Gupta-Carlson is an associate professor at SUNY Empire State College.