One day, in 1963, Joseph M Cheruvelil entered a restaurant in Mississippi, along with David Smith (name changed) a White man. They waited for several minutes, but were not served. Finally, David asked the attendant, “Are you blind? Can’t you see us? We are here for 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 colored 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 realized that if he did something drastic, the police would come,” he says, now half a century later, recalling his initial days in the land of opportunities. . “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 this eloquently narrated autobiography, “A Passage to America – Notes of an adopted son” by Joseph Cheruvelil. The large volume containing 764 pages, 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, India. In 1960, he secured a scholarship, came to the United States, and studied at 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.
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.”
However, as Dr. Joy T. Kunjappu commented rightly, this biography of Joseph is for an international audience. Many of us who have immigrated from India and from across the world to this land of opportunities will find many parallels and may even easily recognize some diagonals and curves, but its emphasis is universal in nature. For a generic reader, it’s a free ride and an assisted access into the life of a man who survived, after a long fight against grueling odds and conflicting visions, right from his childhood. The characteristics of a thinker is to meditate on all the aspects of a problem and accept one’s decision with supporting logistics and calm oneself — man doesn’t live with bread alone! Often, the strong influence of his upbringing makes him say, “mea culpa” as a litany in Latin — an acknowledgment of one’s own fault or error, as in a Catholic confession.
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.”
It took Joseph three-and-a-half years to write the life of story of this “adopted son.” This large volume covers 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.
When he was merited with St. John’s University’s “Outstanding Achievement in Teaching” award, and selected as the Grand Marshall for the 135th Commencement Exercise (p.575), looking with profound internal fulfillment, and facing his wife, Rose; son, Roy; daughter, Sheila; son-in-law, Vijay; and grandson, Seth in the audience, he “… remembered the first time I attended my preschool class, the first time I went to college in Thevara, and the first time I came to St John’s …”
A real story of an immigrant. In this large volume one gets to understand the life in India as it has evolved in the past century. The reader is taken through the passage of time as events unfold both here in India and the US. The life of Joseph Cheuvelil is that of millions of immigrants who fought odds and made a name for themselves. Truly inspiring!
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.”