Indo-Asian News Service
Washington, Jan 19 (IANS) When Barack Obama takes oath as America’s first black president Tuesday, no Indian American will be happier than the first Fulbright Fellow from India, Rajendra Desai, who describes Obama as “the greatest change God has granted America”.
“I was considered to be a black man and forced to sit with blacks in bus and restaurants in the early 1950s,” 85-year-old Desai told IANS on phone from his home in New Port Beach in California.
Recalling that incident in 1953 at Oak Ridge in the racially segregated state of Tennessee, the first Indian to become a cancer specialist in the US said: “I experienced first-hand what it meant to be a black man in the 1950s America. This happened to me when as a young doctor I was sent from Boston for training at the Institute of Nuclear Medicine in Oak Ridge.
“Whites in small-town America had never seen an Indian at that time. Oak Ridge had a population of 40,000. It was the centre where the Americans were perfecting the science of nuclear bombs.
“I was there for four weeks, and treated like any other black. The very first day, the driver of the local bus told me: `You nigger. You have to sit at the back’.”
The treatment was no different in city restaurants, said Desai, who was the first Indian doctor to get the Fulbright Fellowship in 1952.
“I was forced to sit in the back and made to eat with other blacks. This was the story all over small-town America. They were mostly illiterate people and they treated me as they treated blacks,” he said.
“I was a follower of Gandhi and practised tolerance in the face of humiliation. And what else could one do? My job was to learn nuclear medicine and get out of that town. So I kept my (mouth) shut,” said Desai who later founded the Indian Medical Association of Southern California.
Looking back at his experience as a `black man’ 55 years ago on the eve of Obama’s oath, Desai said: “Obama is the greatest change God has granted America. It is a dynamic society which has learnt quickly from its past and put the best man in the top position.”
He added: “Obama is a great intelligent man who will take America to new heights. Look at the accomplishments of this young man and his equally brilliant wife. They are the most brilliant and talented couple in this country today.”
However, Desai, who runs the multi-million Project Deaf in India to eradicate deafness, said he has his fears too.
“I am worried about some mad thing happening to him. I hope that no attempt is made to harm him. That is my prayer. With Obama at the helm, the American dream is alive and thriving.”