By Surekha Vijh
WASHINGTON: Like so many Indian Americans who have climbed the success ladder in various fields, Swadesh Chatterjee too is a profile of achievement – someone who rose to become a successful engineer, businessman and a major influence in American politics in his new country.
He is credited with brokering the nuclear deal between the US and India and he is the first non-resident Indian (NRI) to win India’s second highest civilian honor, the Padma Bhushan.
Arriving in the US in 1978 with his wife, Manjusri, infant daughter, Sohini and with only $35 in his pocket, Chatterjee’s an amazing story of the American Dream.
Born on December 25, 1947, Chatterjee’s father proudly named him Swadesh, or home rule as he was born just months after India’s independence in Aug 1947. Sonamukhi, a small ancient and holy town in remote West Bengal with only 20,000 people was his birthplace.
“That was my introduction to life, freedom and a world of dreams. It was a curious way to see life in its totality,” Chatterjee says.
Many of Chatterjee’s relatives were active in India’s freedom struggle as was his father in the ‘Quit India’ movement, started by Mahatma Gandhi.
Being a Kulin Brahmin, Chatterjee was exposed to religious ceremonies from the beginning. His father, a school teacher who later became the chairman of the municipality of Sonamukhi, inculcated spirituality in his children. His mother took care of thirteen children – ten girls and three boys – along with many cousins and friends who lived with them and went to school from their home, who didn’t have a school in their own village.
“I campaigned for my father, canvassing from door to door. Seeing my father coming from a humble background and make his mark in local politics, gave me the courage to imagine life beyond our means,’’ Chatterjee adds.
Chatterjee went to Rama Krishna College, majoring in physics. The college had a strict routine, waking up at five in the morning, bathing, praying and meditating for two hours before they were served breakfast. After two years of college, he joined Jadavpur Engineering College in Calcutta, where he topped first year honor rolls.
Chatterjee recalled his first job with the Hindustan Steel Corporation in the adjacent state of Orissa. He married Manjushri in 1973 and their daughter was born in 1977.
Then American beckoned. His wife’s brother, who was in the US, asked them to move over here and they landed here in 1978.
They had their share of hardships while settling into this new adopted land, studying at night for his masters in Business Administration at the University of North Carolina and working during the day. They rented a small apartment and ate a simple staple diet of rice and lentils. His wife worked at a local hospital and finally Chatterjee found work as an engineer. Their son, Sauvik, was born in 1981.
Chatterjee worked hard to rise in his profession, yet couldn’t fulfill his full potential due to the glass ceiling. He decided to build something of his own and started an engineering and scientific company.
“It was a rewarding and successful venture but I still felt a vacuum. I needed to do more for my community, state, my new homeland and the country of my birth,” Chatterjee says.
So he sold his company after years of growth and became active in Indian American business and political organizations. As Indian-Americans brought a unique perspective to the U.S.-India relationship, it was up to them to become the bridge between the two nations.
“It was an ethical responsibility on our part to make sure that our two beloved nations overcame constant misunderstandings, were brought closer together and refocused on the synergy of their national interests,” Chatterjee expounds.
The relations between India and the U.S. for most of the last century were bleak. Before the 1990’s, fighting for Indian causes in the U.S. Capitol was almost impossible, any progress was like the tip of the iceberg.
The Indian-American community was deeply hurt when the U.S. imposed sanctions on India for nuclear tests in 1998. This was a catalyst for the Indian Americans to come together as a community and successfully lobby the U.S. Congress for lifting the sanctions against India.
“We took this opportunity to encourage President Bill Clinton to lead a trade mission to India, I was honored to brief and accompany President Clinton on his historic trip to India in 2000,” Chatterjee adds. This was the first U.S. presidential visit in 22 years, since President Jimmy Carter visited India in 1978. Atal Bihai Vajpaye was the prime minister in 2000.
They worked tirelessly to take this thawing relationship between these two important democracies further and their work culminating in the historic U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Agreement signed in 2008 by President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, leading to many other mutual co operations.
Now, the US-India relationship is one of the most important in the world. India, home to over one billion people, is an economic power and a nuclear power with the world’s third largest military on a personnel basis. There is virtually no significant global issue that can not be solved without US-India cooperation. Together, they have built a bridge and overcome years of estrangement between the two nations due to the Cold War and the legacy of British colonialism.
“Now after thirty-five years in the United States, as I sit in my office in Cary, North Carolina, a former settlement and now the fastest growing town in the United States, I see from my window a beautiful landscaped town,” Chatterjee mulls. His wife and he have called this their home for decades. Their children received their primary education in this city. “There is a special connection with this town, besides with the state and the country,” he adds.
Overwhelmed and humbled by the final signing of the Nuclear Agreement and the recognition by the government of the country of his birth with the Padma Bushan, Chatterjee says his mind reflected on his long complex journey to reach this point.
Chatterjee’s story is truly an immigrant’s story; a journey from India to the US, a dream fulfilled and a sacrament for galvanizing all efforts to see the two largest democracies, one the country of his birth and the other the country of his aspirations come closer. As he puts, he is a proud child of two motherlands, India and America.