My name is Hema Rajagopalan.
INTERVIEWED BY Sreedevi Sripathy

"But I always danced every day."

New Dehli, India

New York, New York





What do you remember, from your first days of arriving in the United States?

First day of arriving was very, very, I want to say, very anxious. I was really very scared because I was coming for the first time. There are no cell phones in those days, and I was supposed to meet my husband, you know, in New York City in the airport, you know how it is. So, even the travel was very traumatic for me. I had left my two year old daughter in India, at that time, she was barely two. And so I was very anxious, very scared as to whether I'm going to be reaching the destination, you know, and whether I will meet my husband, and it was very traumatic. For me, the journey was very traumatic. And also, you know, you had to carry the visa papers and all that it was scary as to what - what's going to happen in a totally alien - and then when I landed, you see so many, you know, other people that you don't really normally see in India, right. So the people look different people spoke differently. So it was traumatic.

But, you know, it was very nice to see my husband and his friend, who came to pick me up. And my first day is in New York itself was very, I want to say, because we were living in an apartment building, it was an apartment, [in] Flushing, and every door had security, some chains, and, you know, I'm not used to all that. So I was very scared. My husband used to go to work in the morning, and then, you know, I had to stay there for the whole day, not used to the new things around me like television, and things like that, you know, which was different. So it was a, I want to say a very lonely and very scary kind of a first few days, for the first week.

Then we met, my husband's friend was an Indian - little bit of, you know, comfort, I would say, and also food and, yeah, so within I think two weeks, then my husband came to know that, you know, he – we decided we will move back to India, because this wasn't going to be our place really. So anyway, he had come was going to be here just for a short period of two years to study. And my - our intention was not to be in this country, in to begin with. But even those first few months, like he was there already for six months. And then when I came, I think we made a decision that and then he didn't have a job also at that time, so we decided to move. But so we took a I think 10 day tour, like, you know, just going around work with whatever money we had, we had very little money also. But then he got a job in Chicago, which was kind of, you know, hopeful for us, and then we got admission in Chicago for to do his MBA, which was his main focus. So then we moved to Chicago.

And then we were again, in an apartment, I go used to some Indian people around me and that was the early beginning of that 74. And within a I think I want to say within a two or three month span of time, we moved from where we were staying in a different suburb to closer to the city in a suburb called Forest Park in Chicago. And I had a master's degree in nutrition, so I applied for a job as a dietitian, and which I did at Loyola hospital. So I was working as a dietitian for barely six months. And we were living in a one bedroom apartment at that time. But I always danced every day. So that was something that I found that I cannot leave, you know, I cannot originally my intention of coming or even visiting United States for a couple of years was just to have a change of scenario from the Indian scenario where I was in New Delhi.

And I was the upcoming artist but because of a lot of red tape-ism and, you know, it was very, very difficult for me to understand the ropes of how to get to be presented and so on. And I didn't believe in all those going behind the scenes and talking to people, I didn't know how to PR, you know. And I didn't want to do that. So then I felt that this is a very divine kind of art, and I don't need to sell my art. So I felt the bureaucracy was just too much there in New Delhi. So even though I was written up so much in the newspaper, as an upcoming rising star, and so on, and so forth, I decided I’ll quit, I don't want to do anything dance at all. And that's how we made a decision to come here in the first place.

So but then when I got here, I realized that dance is what my whole thing is, is I feel like a fish out of water, that I used to dance in my own apartment, very few, barely, I think two or three families that we knew. But then they, you know, and I didn't like what I was doing at the hospital either. Absolutely not. So I was more of an artist than a dietitian, you know? So then somebody said, why don't you give a performance? We have never seen a Bharatanatyam performance, you know, so I did. I had music and my costume, and I did and that's when my very first students came, the parents came and said, why don't you start a teaching our children. So then I thought maybe by and also, the other thing was, I found there was such a cultural void amongst the Indians themselves, They had no clue what they might have had understanding of our heritage, but they wanted to give it up. So their idea of was melting into the melting pot, so to say, so they wanted to look different, they wanted to cut their hair, no, bindi, try not to attract attention to yourself – melt so that you become one with the locale you know. And that's a good good, good understanding, that's a good idea also, but I felt losing your cultural heritage, which is so rich, and not talking about it or marginalizing, it is not for me. So I used to kind of start vocalizing and say something because they would always put India down or Indian traditions down in the few get togethers that we attended. So I thought maybe by teaching the children, I would revive that, you know, and I had never taught before in my life. So I talked to my guru in India, and he said, no, continue start with it. So I started teaching like, I think two or three to begin with. And then there were the first seven people that students that I was teaching. So then I stuck on I was teaching, you know, moving on, then, in 1980, I started touring with my musicians from India.

I'm curious, you know, when you think about those first days and flushing or your first days when you move to Chicago, was there anything that surprised you about? About being in America? Any, any any kind of thought it would be like this, but it was like this?

I never thought it would be like that, do you see. But also, I didn't know also, I was not aware, I, you know, I just came, people, you know [said] great things about it. And I was not those days, we couldn't be, you know, browsing and all that, so didn't know much about it, you see, but the fact that I was scared of the well, you call them, you know, African Americans. But in those days, you were scared of those people, because there was a stigma behind them, you see, and, and all the rioting, and the killing, you know that we've heard about it, and then the locks on the door, and then the security building. And then the notices which said - don't open the door, between this time - some things like that in that building. So yeah, it was very, very, as they said, I was thinking, Okay, what have I done wrong in my life, what sins have I committed that I've come to this place, which is like, to me, you know, and so lonely, because you're not used to this locked situation, with nobody communicating. My husband goes in the money, nobody talks to anyone you don't know your neighbor, these were my first few days, you see, and going to the grocery store, not finding things that you want, which is easily available. And so [inaudible] that way of living and for what you know, and it wasn't that my husband got a great salary either. So I didn't see the point at all.

So I'm curious. And when when did that shift happen?

Oh, that again, I would say that, we were almost ready to come back to India. And, you know, he got this opportunity, and that he wanted to [inaudible] MBA. And he said, it's only a two year thing. And then we'd go back and see, because he already had he was he was in the railways in India, holding a very high post. So he had to go back anyway, so he had only signed ta bond that he will come back you see? So we said okay, let's explore these two years, let him finish. And that's when I took up this dieticians job, and I thought, I won't dance and I won’t [audible] and what got to me what these get togethers with the, with the few Indian communities that I met with, and their mindset, which kept criticizing every time we go. Every time we got together, it was just putting down Indian traditions and culture. And you know, so I really got annoyed. And I thought, no, we need to do something about it that I kept thinking of. And there was one gentleman who was a South Indian person, KS Raj, and he was a scientist. And he said, dance, and then I danced and through my dance, I could break that. And I didn't think I would be making a difference to dance really. It just so happened that it happened. And today, in fact, that very first student is our, the chair of the board. She's a lawyer. Wow. And both those both the parents were the first president was president of the Hindu temple. My husband was the treasurer. So that also, you know, added and I think that was fulfilling and gratifying for me.

Is there any other anything else you'd like to share about your memories of your first days are anything?

Anything else, I want to say that, you know, I don't want it to be on the negative. But there were, you know, there were some people that, that were not in the Indian community, I want to say that there were two families, two neighbors in fact, in that flushing area, they were not in my building, but they were another building. And I so happen, it's so happened that I found, you know, talking to me found, they started talking to me in the park, you know, and they were very interested in who I was, and where I came from, and really felt empathetic towards me. And they offered that help, they would bring - come bring some banana bread sometimes. And, you know, would console me if I felt, sometimes I used to get scared that my husband has not come home. You know, like it would be seven o'clock would be nighttime, and I would be scared. And then I would be worried and go knock at their door because it was in the next building. So I want to say that, you know, it's not that it was it’s just our perception. It's not about people. I want to say that it's more we are, when there is fear. You know, when there is fear that we are different than they are different and maybe they would not, you know, come meet us halfway. That's when you know, you get more scared and you develop all these phobias. But I think if we are educated for example, if there was somebody to give us, you know, help, oh, don't worry, just go talk to them. They're nice, you know, there's, there's a better understanding - see, we didn't have information we didn't have people to help us in those days. You know, now of course, you have all these other organizations that you come and they help you. But in those days, it was not there.